On 16 OCT 15, NEC-SE posted: The New Model of Power Relations and the Middle East Crisis
In the article we stated:
“Most Americans are ignorant of the shifting alliances and power blocs that are influencing the course of events in the Middle East. As a result, recent moves by Russia and China in Syria and the Mediterranean Sea have come as a shock to many observers. But those that have followed China and Russia since the mid 1990s, when the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) was formed as an alternative to the unipolar world led by United States (and, also, as a response to an increasingly assertive and capable NATO) know that the SCO axis had a prior record of conducting multiple national-level joint military and security exercises well before the crisis in Syria placed them in an operational role.
“They also know that the U.S. has played a leadership role in facilitating the recent re-emergence of Russia as a global power and in the rise of China as a military power. Larger American firms tied to the current administration have also been given economic incentives to help sustain China’s faltering economy thereby ensuring that China realizes its vision for the Middle East.
“Thus, in a few years under the current administration, the U.S. has surrendered initiative and leadership on foreign policy to the SCO axis. China is now ahead of U.S. in terms of providing a conceptual vision of the future in not only Asia but throughout world.
“This became glaringly apparent last week when Americans watched with astonishment and no little dismay as the Russians and Chinese, in collusion with Iran, undertook to support the Assad regime in the civil war in Syria. Bear in mind that this is the same regime that the Obama administration identified as having crossed a “red line” by using weapons of mass destruction against opposition forces.
“NEC-SE hopes that people who value democratic governance will recognize that the new world order as envisioned by the SCO axis is fundamentally hostile to the formation and existence of free societies. Nor is a world organized along the SCO’s authoritarian, statist lines conducive to achieving peace and prosperity among the historical nations of the Middle East.”
In other words, the United States has been abandoning its footprint in several parts of the world, including especially Eastern Europe and the Middle East. As a result the ability of the United States to influence the course of events and provide meaningful support to our allies in those regions is declining. Exacerbating the situation is the tendency of the current administration to flip-flop on key policy issues affecting those allies.
Our foreign policy for Iraq has been especially problematic. Initially, following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, we sought to build an all-inclusive Iraq that would provide fair representation and security for everyone in that ethnically and religiously diverse nation, including the indigenous Assyrians. Subsequently, however, the United States ceded most of Iraq south of Tikrit to that area’s Shiite Muslims. It is interesting to note in this regard that the late Ayatollah Khomeini, former supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, seemed to anticipate this development as far back as June 1982, not long after the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. In a work entitled Post-Saddam Iraq: New Realities, Old Identities, Changing Patterns by Amnon Cohen and Noga Efrati, Khomeini was quoted as saying that “the road to Jerusalem passes through Karbala.” According to the authors, this statement by Khomeini signaled his belief that Iraqi Shiites were key to his longstanding goal of creating an Islamist Middle East, a process that necessarily entailed the equally desired objective of achieving the destruction of Israel.
Fast-forward three decades and we see that the Ayatollah’s plan for the region is unfolding more or less as he predicted. Example: the Obama administration hints that PM Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, should step down in order to allow more participation in the nation’s government and political processes by Iraqi Sunnis and other marginalized elements. Maliki does step down and is succeeded by Haider al-Abadi, who largely continues Maliki’s policy of expanding and consolidating Shia power in Iraq. Given that this is the case, it is no coincidence that the Iraqi army is now largely trained and commanded by Iranians. The response by the United States to the Shiia power grab is confused and contradictory. On the one hand the Obama Administration states that Iraq will remain a unified sovereign nation; on the other hand Vice President Joe Biden opines that Iraq must be partitioned into three separate states. Not surprisingly, the KRG’s Masrour Barzani expressed his support for partitioning Iraq on 16 JUN 2016. This outcome seems more likely with each passing day, but it is be no means a foregone conclusion–not yet, at any rate. Nobody can say for sure what Iraq’s ultimate fate will be, least of all the United States, which has so far failed to produce a viable strategy, much less anything resembling a coherent plan, for keeping Iraq unified. The rest of the world has taken note of this failure and has interpreted it as a sign of weakness on America’s part.
In northern Iraq (i.e., north of Tikrit) we see much the same dynamic at work. In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama chastised then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the deteriorating situation in Iraq, observing that Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, and Mandaeans “appear to be targeted by Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish militants.” He went on to say:
“The severe violations of religious freedom face by members of these indigenous communities, and their potential extinction from their ancient homeland, is deeply alarming in light of our mission to bring freedom to the Iraqi people.
“In addition, such violence may be an indicator of greater sectarian violence. Such rising sectarian violence and the Iraqi internally displaced people and refugee crises potentially could serve as catalysts for wider regional instability…. These crises demand an urgent response from our government.”
Fast-forward a mere seven years to 2014, and again to 2016, when President Obama proved unwilling to acknowledge that the Islamic State was engaged in the genocidal extermination of these communities, or that the systematic massacre of Assyrians, Armenians, and Pontic Greeks by the Ottoman Turks during World War I fit the definition of genocide. This, despite the fact that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama had promised in 2008, in a written statement on his campaign website, that he would push for recognition of those massacres as genocidal acts. Instead, he has further ceded ownership of northern Iraq, specifically the Assyria Nineveh Plain, to the Sunni Muslim Kurds. When it comes to formulating and implementing Middle East policy, the only consistency one observes in the Obama administration is inconsistency. It is ironic that Germany, a traditional “friend” of Turkey, did what the Obama administration could not when it formally recognized as genocide the massacres of Armenians and other Christian ethnicities in First World War Anatolia.
The foreign policy missteps in Iraq lead us into neighboring Iran, where ongoing efforts to obtain weapons-grade uranium (presumably for the construction of nuclear weapons) were recently re-cast in a more benign light, as the means to further the development of Iran’s civilian nuclear capabilities. The conclusion of the so-called Iranian Nuclear Economic Deal between the US and Iran formalized this rather generous interpretation of Iranian R&D activities in the nuclear technology sphere. It also resulted in the US giving Iran hundreds of billions of dollars while at the same failing to secure the release of American citizens detained in that country.
Nor have US business interests benefited from this deal, as intended. On the contrary American businesses (except for those specifically authorized by OFAC) remain barred from Iran. Meanwhile, European businesses are enjoying their newly granted ability to open subsidiaries in Iran and conduct operations in that country without competition from their American counterparts.
This favorable treatment of Iran is peculiar in light of President Obama’s statement to an Arab newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, that “Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism … it helps prop up the Assad regime in Syria. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It aids the Houthi rebels in Yemen. So countries in the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran’s activities, especially its support for violent proxies inside the borders of other nations.” The president went on to say that he “cannot predict Iran’s internal dynamics” because Iran has “leaders and groups that for decades have defined themselves in opposition to both the United States and our regional partners.”
Amazingly, the Iranian Nuclear-Economic Deal was concluded shortly after these comments by the president were published in Arab media outlets. With the one-year anniversary of the deal approaching it is safe to say that the US has realized little to no positive return it. Instead, Iran has become a regional power that still holds US citizens in its prisons, still aids the Assad regime, and is conducting military operations in Iraq just as the Ayatollah Khomeini asserted it must and would eventually do. Israel is duly perplexed and alarmed by this deal, as it has historically looked to the US as an ally, only to see it empowering its aggressively hostile opponent.
Missteps in Iraq also lead us to the US policy for Turkey. There have been a plethora of confusing messages sent by the US in this regard.
First, Secretary of State John Kerry called Erdogan’s comments on Zionism “objectionable” after Erdogan characterized Zionism as a “crime against humanity.”
Relatedly, Vice President Joe Biden commented during a Harvard University speech in OCT 2014 that Erdogan had admitted to funneling jihadists into Syria via Turkey to fight against the Assad regime. Angered by Biden’s comment, Erdogan insisted that he never made such a statement and demanded an apology from the vice president. Biden immediately complied and issued a clarification.
Then, in DEC 2015, President Obama urged Turkey and Russia to de-escalate tensions after Turkey shot down a Russia fighter jet over the Syrian-Turkish border. On the one hand, Obama stated that
“We all have a common enemy [referring to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group]. I want to make sure that we focus on that threat. Turkey is a NATO ally, and we’re very much committed to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty. We discussed how Turkey and Russia can work together to de-escalate tensions and find a diplomatic path to resolve this issue.”
On the other hand, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter later stated that Turkey should step up its efforts to combat Islamic State militants, saying that Turkey had not effectively secured its borders to prevent IS fighters from crossing back and forth between Turkey and Syria. This harkened back to Vice President Biden’s comments from just a year earlier. Speaking in Washington, Carter urged Turkey to counter the jihadists “both in the air and on the ground”:
Most recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that US Special Forces operators in Syria were wearing Kurdish YPD patches and that this was “unacceptable.” Turkey is currently facing strong opposition from Kurdish separatist groups. This tug of war between US/NATO interests and Turkey’s interests has given rise to speculation that Turkey may decide to leave NATO. Just this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO will increase its presence in the Mediterranean in order to reduce the flow of Syrian refugees migrating to Europe via Turkey. Turkey opposed this course of action, arguing that NATO’s resources should be used to combat “Russian aggression” even as it continues to rake in dollars via its human smuggling operations.
On 2 AUG 15 NEC-SE was the first media outlet to call attention to the upcoming refugee crisis; and on 11 SEP 2015 we provided a detailed analysis examining how Turkey has profited from the refugee crisis:
“Turkey has opened her borders with Greece, Syria, and Eastern Europe to facilitate the flow of refugees into the rest of Europe/NATO member states. At the same time Turkish “organizations” are supporting the refugees on their journey. These organizations are actually nothing more than groups of human smugglers who function in much the same fashion as the notorious “coyotes” of Mexico who illegally transport various people from South America through Mexico and into the United States via its southern border.”
It appears that the United States, under its current leadership, has been unable to effectively communicate a consistent message to the world in general and to NATO partners like Turkey in particular. Ironically, what the Obama administration has been unable to do, the family of the late boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, was able to do at his recent funeral. Erdogan had intended to speak at the funeral and had traveled to Kentucky for that purpose, but was denied from doing so by Ali’s family. The latter cited scheduling conflicts as the reason for his removal from the list of speakers, but an article in Washington Post intimated that there were other factors at play. As well, Erdogan had sought to place a piece of cloth from the Kaaba in Mecca (Islam’s holiest site) on Ali’s coffin during a Thursday night prayer service preceding the funeral; this, too, the family denied. And finally, Erdogan had hoped to have his own Islamic cleric read from the Koran during the Thursday service, only to be denied that privilege as well. Unlike President Obama and his administration, Ali’s family was not intimidated by the Turkish prime minister nor was it reluctant to stand up to him. The Post also stated. that according to some unconfirmed reports, Ali’s family had invited CIA-backed Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen – Erdogan’s rival – to attend the funeral. All this proved too much for Erdogan, who cut short his US trip, skipping Ali’s funeral altogether to return to Turkey.
On 28 SEP 15, NEC-SE asked readers, “who speaks for Islam and who should speak for Islam?” Erdogan believes that Turkey should speak for Sunni Islam and that he should speak for Turkey. Ali’s family believed differently and showed through their actions that it had no intention of letting Erdogan hijack the funeral for his own political gain. The family stood up to the Turkish prime minister, thwarting him at every turn, demonstrating the sort of decisiveness and clarity of purpose that the Obama administration had singularly lacked in its dealings with Turkey.
Today the rivalry between the global powers is playing out violently on the battlefields of Syria. Here, too, the US under its current leadership has sent confusing signals to the world concerning where and with whom it stands in the conflict, and what should be done to end it.
First, in AUG 2012, President Obama stated that Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a “red line” that would trigger a firm response from the US and its allies
One year later, Assad’s army was accused “with high confidence” by the White House of killing more than 1,400 civilians using sarin gas. Much of the world believed that the US under Obama’s leadership would retaliate with air strikes against the Assad regime. But the US did nothing and Assad continued unchecked in brutally suppressing his enemies. Eventually, Russia acted to broker a deal whereby Assad would turn over his stock of chemical weapons to representatives of the global community.
What began as a stern warning by Obama of “enormous consequences” and a “change of calculus” on intervening militarily in Syria’s civil war fizzled into a faux effort to seek Congressional authorization for airstrikes that he knew would be denied. To be sure, diplomacy succeeded in convincing Assad to relinquish most of his chemical weapons; but the absence of such weapons also opened up the battlefield to Islamic State militants, who promised Syrian Sunni Muslims protection from the Assad regime.
The rise of the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014, when it achieved significant military success and territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, led to speculation that Obama in fact preferred ISIS to Assad. NEC-SE was the first to note that the president blundered in this regard in a speech in which he stated, or rather misstated, that “the fall of Ramadi has galvanized the Iraqi government. So with the additional steps I ordered last month we’re speeding up [the] training of ISIL forces, including volunteers from Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. More Sunni volunteers are coming forward.”
On 6 JUL 15 NEC-SE wrote:
“This statement came during a televised speech where the President was speaking about U.S. strategic policies in the Middle East region. It was read off of a written statement which was given to him after his meeting with the National Security team members at the Pentagon. While most Americans understood that the President had referred to forces fighting against ISIL based on the context both prior to and after this statement, misunderstandings will abound in the Middle East where people are dying on a daily basis and most of the countries are in chaos. Those preparing these statements should have reviewed the President’s speech prior to it being delivered.”
The Obama administration could seemingly do nothing right. First it threatened air strikes against the Assad regime, only to back away from taking any military action whatsoever. Then it went with a more covert approach by training and arming rebel groups, whose weapons and fighters would often find their way to the Al-Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria) and to the Islamic State. The Associated Press wrote:
“Even when President Barack Obama sent U.S. troops back to Iraq and ordered the military to stay in Afghanistan, he insisted Syria would remain off limits for American ground forces. Now he’s crossed his own red line.
“Obama’s announcement Friday that he was deploying up to 50 U.S. special operations troops into northern Syria to assist in the fight against the Islamic State group is the kind of incremental move that has defined his second-term Mideast strategy.”
With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was thought that Russia and the West (and especially the US) would finally reconcile their difference. Alas, this has not happened. Tensions remain high between Russia and the US, and seem to be worsening overall.
Here again, and as in the Middle East, we find the US blundering repeatedly in managing its relationship with Russia. Just one day after Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin observed that a new “Cold War” had developed between Russia and the West, US Senator John McCain accused Russia of using the war in Syria “as a live-fire exercise” for its military and, concurrently, as a means of increasing its footprint in the Middle East. McCain spoke at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, criticizing Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war. He stated that “Mr. Putin is not interested in being our partner” and that he wants to “shore up the Assad regime.” He further stated that Putin “wants to re-establish Russia as a major power in the Middle East … he wants to turn Latakia province into a military outpost from which to harden and enforce a Russia sphere of influence – a new Kaliningrad, or Crimea – and he wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the trans-Atlantic alliance and undermine the European project.
Also at the Munich Security Conference and just a day prior to McCain making his comments, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russia’s strikes in Syria had been mostly “against legitimate opposition groups.”
Secretary Kerry’s statement in February 2016 came in stark contrast to what he had stated about six months prior. In July 2015, State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated that:
“The Secretary doesn’t agree with the assessment [by John McCain] that Russia is an existential threat to the United States…. Certainly we have disagreements with Russia … but we don’t view it as an existential threat.”
One must ask, which is it? Is Russia a threat? Or is it not?
Similar confusion has resulted from Obama’s policy in Egypt. In 2012, the president urged the Egyptian military to stay out of politics during the so-called Arab Spring, when several Islamist movements seized governmental power in various Arab countries. He also supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rise to power in Egypt under the leadership of Mohamed Morsi. Roughly six years ago, Morsi delivered a speech to Egyptians urging them to hate Jews and to teach their offspring to hate Jews and Zionists. In a television interview a few months after that speech, he used the phrase “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” He also went on to say that “the land of Palestine will not be freed except through resistance” and then praised Hamas as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shortly after this speech during a 15 JAN 13 White House press conference, a spokesman for President Obama downplayed the anti-Semitic rhetoric by Morsi. While “strongly condemning” Morsi’s rhetoric, White House spokesman Jay Carney stated that “has demonstrated in word and deed his commitment to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.… He obviously worked with us to resolve … a ceasefire … in the Gaza conflict last year.” Carney also said that the Obama administration feels that its relationship with Morsi is “about action … about deeds” and followed these words with a weak rebuke, stating that Morsi “should make clear that he respects people of all faiths, and that this type of rhetoric is not acceptable or productive in a democratic Egypt.”
Unfortunately, the policy blunders did not end there. On 3 JUL 2013, then-Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a coalition to topple Morsi after mass anti-Morsi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. The mass demonstrations culminated with the installation of General Sisi as president of Egypt.
Shortly thereafter Sisi began a crackdown on political dissidents and opponents. His security forces arrested thousands of people including opposition members, and in one day gunned down about 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters. In response to these actions Obama said that “we can’t return to business as usual. We have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and ideals.” The Obama administration then announced that it was cutting off military and economic aid to Egypt, calling the Morsi’s ouster a military coup and refusing to legally recognize Sisi as the legitimate president of Egypt.
It was later revealed by Egyptian Member of Parliament Tawfik Okasha that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was called upon to mediate between Sisi and Obama. It was also revealed that fierce discord broke out within the Obama administration just before a decision was made on the policy the US would take toward the Sisi regime. On the one hand, White House aides such as Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power urged President Obama to send military and economic aid to Egypt on the condition that Sisi could show progress on human rights. On the other hand, Secretary of State Kerry along with then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (and his successor, Ash Carter) recommended withholding aid.
The ensuing months-long debates on what to do surely left Sisi in a state of paranoia and confusion about the Obama administration’s true intentions. Finally, Obama gave in. A former senior administration official who was part of the debates stated that “we caved.” Obama called Sisi and released the cash transfers and F-16s he had previously agreed to, and ended the threats of cutting off the $1.3B aid packages that the US sends Egypt every year. Obama and Kerry urged Sisi to improve his record on human rights and help in reducing the expanding IS footprint. Not surprisingly, Sisi did neither.
In the end, speechwriter-turned-national security aide Ben Rhodes best summarized the situation when he stated that “we’re in that sweet spot where everyone is pissed off at us.”
Last but not least, the US-Israel relations have taken a decided turn for the worse under the Obama administration. In late 2015, for example, Congress passed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015. It was designed to stop boycotts and other forms of economic warfare against Israel. On 24 February 2016, President Obama signed the bill into law. However, like other policy matters, he showed duplicity on that matter. During the signing of the bill, he stated that he objected to parts of the law that oppose boycotts of Israeli enterprises on the West Bank and the Golan Heights. While a bill, once signed, is signed in whole and becomes law, there is the occasional “signing statement” that a president may make in which he informs the signatories that he does not wish to enforce certain parts of that law. This in and of itself sends a rather conflicting message to Israel and creates the perception that the Obama administration is seeking to weaken it.
NEC-SE has made efforts to present readers with a link analysis on various foreign policy matters. It is up to readers to formulate positions based on these facts. However, what is clear is that the current administration as well as US policymakers on both sides of the aisle have sent conflicting messages to the rest of the world and have ceded US footprint to competitors. With such a dizzying sequence of foreign policy missteps and miscalculations, is it any wonder why other regional and global powers do not respect the United States, or at the very least, view it with suspicion? How can the United States continue to function as a leader of the world community when the world community does not respect it?