2018-02-27

Turkey and containment of Iran in the Middle East


Iran has long been a headache for U.S. strategic planning in the Middle East. A new round of debates on Iran’s malign influence in the region was sparked by several correlated events: the relative decline of global role of the U.S., its decision to reconsider existing commitments to regional allies, and the recent rise of Iran's profile in major conflicts in the Middle East. Iran is not an ordinary player, primarily due to its peculiar political regime, its ideological vision for the region, and its impressive immunity to outside pressure. The U.S. has been signaling that it would not stay passive if Iranian expansion challenged American interests in the Middle East. However, the U.S. has also been clear that it would not seek direct confrontation with Tehran, relying instead on cooperation with other regional players. This renders it imperative to assess what role Turkey, a major NATO ally, is going to occupy in the future with regards to U.S. plans to limit Iranian expansion in the Middle East.

Iran has long been a headache for U.S. strategic planning in the Middle East. A new round of debates on Iran’s malign influence in the region was sparked by several correlated events: the relative decline of global role of the U.S., its decision to reconsider existing commitments to regional allies, and the recent rise of Iran's profile in major conflicts in the Middle East. Iran is not an ordinary player, primarily due to its peculiar political regime, its ideological vision for the region, and its impressive immunity to outside pressure. The U.S. has been signaling that it would not stay passive if Iranian expansion challenged American interests in the Middle East. However, the U.S. has also been clear that it would not seek direct confrontation with Tehran, relying instead on cooperation with other regional players. This renders it imperative to assess what role Turkey, a major NATO ally, is going to occupy in the future with regards to U.S. plans to limit Iranian expansion in the Middle East.

Washington's concerns over rising Iranian influence following the nuclear deal were prompted by several trends. The primary issue was Iranian technological advancement that could likely improve the regime's strike and deterrence capabilities. A further subject of concern is Iran's expanding clandestine subversive activity in a number of countries around the Middle East, where Iranian proxies rely on Tehran's assistance and expertise. Iranian operations in the region are supported by efforts to infiltrate regional polities by creating subnational political and military parties with specific agendas and allegiances.

Finally, as previous experience dealing with Iran suggests, its political regime is highly adaptive to outside pressure. The concept of the Resistance Economy equips the regime with tools to withstand economic sanctions, rendering this internationally accepted coercive tool in the U.S. diplomatic arsenal less effective. It is not only that the regime is empowered vis-à-vis its domestic political challengers. Iran has managed to develop ties with other regional and global players, making plans to isolate Iran less sound.

The Trump administration, though it has not demonstrated good comprehension of the region’s politics, seems to act against Iran based on its evaluation of past attempts to limit a rising regional power with malign intents. The principal element of the new anti-Iran policy includes directed sanctions against critical elements of the regime that both enjoy a dominant position within the Iranian domestic political system and serve as a medium for the regime's foreign policy. Another essential part of the forthcoming U.S. strategy to counter Iran is directly linked to Washington's limitation of its direct involvement in the region.

The U.S. administration intends to facilitate coordination between major regional powers, which fear Iran may pose a serious threat to their own interests. In this vein, pan-Arab solidarity and Saudi involvement in Iraqi politics may be facilitated further. Against this background, Turkey's role in the U.S. bid to inhibit the rise of Iran is likely to be further scrutinized by decision-makers in both countries.

The issue, of course, cannot be explored without turning to the history of U.S.-Turkish cooperation in Middle Eastern conflicts. Since the 1950s, a period when the region witnessed rising U.S. involvement, Turkey was increasingly used as a platform for U.S. strategic operations. The crises in Syria in 1957 and in Lebanon in 1958, as well as the 1980–1988 Iraq–Iran War, show that Washington tends to prefer the indirect involvement of Turkey in crises that emerge in its strategic proximity. One possible explanation as to why the U.S. would be reluctant to actively use Turkey against Iran is the high possibility of a severe negative impact on political stability in Turkey itself. Another explanation may be linked to the views of the American ruling establishment on the nature of the political regime in Turkey and its vision for the Middle East.

By extending political reforms after coming to power in 2002, the ruling AKP party has managed to bring into the political process a broader mass of the Turkish population, thus changing the sociological aspect of the decision-making process. Besides, a growing national economy and diplomatic activity have equipped the Turkish government with more resources for an independent foreign policy, including regarding its stance on Middle Eastern affairs. Improved capacity to take an independent stance on major issues has also enabled Turkey to deal with Iran according to its national interests, rather than by following U.S. plans. It would be prudent to say, therefore, that the Turkish role in the anti-Iran strategy will likely be defined by Ankara's views on Iranian influence in the region and on bilateral relations.

A long history of interaction is often cited as one of the primary factors that contribute to mutual understanding between Iran and Turkey. It is cooperation on economic matters and trade that drives bilateral ties. Iran accounts for more than 17% of all Turkish natural gas imports, making Tehran a crucial interlocutor and partner in Ankara's plan to become a major energy hub between resource-rich regions and Europe. Beyond that, Turkey plans to enter the Iranian market and increase trade volume to its level in2012, before UN sanctions severed bilateral business ties.

Positive dynamics have every chance to enhance relations in the political and security realms as well: in particular, the need to contain Kurdish nationalism prompts both countries to drift closer to each other and intensify dialogue. U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish polity and long-term plans to retain its own limited military presence in northern Syria are already straining relations between Ankara and Washington. Reluctance to make a compromise on the issue of PYD-led Syrian Kurds may prompt Turkey to seriously consider military and political cooperation with Iran in Syria and Iraq.

However, it is related political issues that may strain relations between the two major powers in the region. Iran's recent advancements in close geographical proximity to Turkey have given rise to serious disquiet among Turkish officials and diplomats. Witnessing Iran’s reinforcement of its sway in Iraq and Syria, Turkish leadership was forced to adopt a more reconciliatory position and participate in measures that would reduce the risk of direct confrontation with Iranian assets in these conflict-ridden countries. The same line of reasoning is behind Ankara's disapproval of conflict between Iran and the U.S.-led camp: uncontrolled proliferation of missile technologies, politicization of human rights and weaponization of the sectarian agenda may undermine Turkey's own national security.

It is against this backdrop that Turkey will assume a stance within the U.S. initiatives against Iran. Turkey will likely have few motives to openly act against Iran as the U.S. reduces its commitments and involvement in the region. Furthermore, Turkey, with its existing social divisions and vulnerabilities to outside shocks, is not well equipped to engage Iran directly. Having said this, we should not rule out the possibility that Turkey will be eager to interact with Iran and extract concessions in times when the latter is facing regional powers' attempts to constrain its rise. Finally, while Turkey may consider such initiatives a perfect opportunity to gain a better negotiation position vis-à-vis Iran over issues of mutual cooperation, Ankara will be against any anti-Iran efforts progressing into large-scale military conflict.

First published by Russian International Affairs Council.

2018-02-19

Russian bid for a cooperation with US in the Middle East


Russia demonstrates that it is neither ready to intervene in every conflict in the Middle East, nor eager to directly challenge U.S. presence in the region. Sober assessment of risks that any engagement in the Middle East may have and clear understanding of a global power balance underpin Russian foreign policy nowadays. While pursuing its own agenda, Russia offers the U.S. to share the burden of leadership and guide the Middle East collectively.

Syrian campaign witnessed a return of the Russian military to the region for the first time since the 1990s. But despite much attention to details of Russian military campaign in Syria since 2015, few note that the scale of Russian involvement remains to be no match to the U.S. presence. For example, highest number of Russian troops and affiliated unites in Syria was at the level of 10000 servicemen, while US largest deployments in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2011 were at the level of 166000 and 100000 troops respectively.

Since 2011 Russia has been active in areas where Western parties failed to provide security when promoting certain political and ideological visions. For the most of its part, Moscow is welcomed in countries which have strained relations with the West: for many Russia seems to be an acceptable alternative for the West since Moscow doesn’t demand broader commitments and doesn't precondition dialogue with domestic political reforms. Russia doesn't build alliances on ideological premises and anti-Westernism either. In Syrian and Libyan conflicts Russia has been adhering to the UN-led resolution processes, while in Egypt ties are getting built on security-related military and economic cooperation.

Russian diplomatic activity is limited to some conflicts in the Middle East and Russian officials don't seek ways to mediate conflicts that don't promise success. Selective approach to engagement underlines absence of proactive involvement of the Russian diplomacy in the dispute between Iran and Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Kurdish issue and the Middle East conflict.

Cautious attitude to the degree of involvement in regional affairs is directly linked to what importance Moscow attaches to the Middle East within the hierarchy of its geopolitical interest as declared in multiple national security documents: Russian presence in the area should serve a supplementary role in efforts to preserve a global outreach and protect interests in closer periphery in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia.

Further underlying reason for a limited activity lies in Russia's views on the Middle East itself. Russian decision-makers perceive the area as highly volatile and unpredictable. Following the lessons from the U.S. invasions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, any attempts to impose a direct steering over the domestic processes and to restructure fragile socio-political order may cause tremendous backlash and result in further violence.

With all this peculiarities and details of the diplomatic engagement in the Middle East Russia has never tried to challenge U.S. interests in the region directly. Instead, Moscow has been trying to create an environment where Washington would find itself unable to secure and protect interests without cooperation with the Russians. 

In Syria, Russia has been building from behind a situation where Israel's border security hangs upon Russian mediation. It seems that Russia is ready to cooperate unofficially on the issue of presence of non-state militias affiliated with Iran in the Syria: Moscow has been struggling to incorporate all relevant armed factions into the Syrian army to deprive Iran additional leverage on Damascus. Besides, it was Russia, who proposed de-escalation zone near the Golan Heights. Recently, this policy also include steps directed at enlarging the pro-Russian military and high-ranking bureaucrats in the Syrian government.

In its dealings with Turkey, Russia has been directing negotiations that would further condition NATO solidarity and associated U.S. interests to Russia's own plans as well. Russia is not trying to persuade Turkey to abandon NATO and build an alliance other nations. Instead, Russia is offering Turkish leadership an avenue to exercise anti-Western criticism and support it with largely symbolical gestures like participation in Russian diplomatic initiatives in Syria or offering military technologies allegedly used as an alternative to the Western ones.

If we want to understand what Russia is really up to in the Middle East, we should examine two interrelated things. First of them is Moscow's struggle to change opinion of the American political establishment on Russia resurgence. The aim is to convince political elites that American interests are increasingly connected to Russian willingness to cooperate. In the long run Moscow's diplomacy should prove that Russia is becoming an indispensable actor in multiple critical areas relevant for American foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

The second thing that frameworks Russian activity is Moscow's efforts to undermine US hegemony in the world, but through a less competitive way by stimulating transition to long-preached multi-polarity where Russia wants to be treated as an equal and responsible partner. Expansion of cooperation between Russia and regional players like Egypt, Syria, Iran contributes, among other things, to better handling of security situation in the region. Security through stability is declared approach of the American government in the new U.S. National Security Strategy and Russia signals that it is ready to work with Americans in stabilizing the region by supporting regional mechanism of security and energizing local initiatives for cooperation.

Today, alas for Moscow, new sanctions mean that American elites still perceive Russia as a threat and eager to prompt the administration to further restrain Russians globally. Nevertheless, Russian diplomacy doesn't give up its plans to increase own capacity to influence US interests in multiple regions. On the other hand, Russia doesn't want to threat US interests as it would lead to escalation into a conflict where Russia will be a losing side. The combination of calls for a dialogue and demonstration of a firm posture in the Middle East may mean that Russia is trying to invite US to guide the region cooperatively.

2018-02-06

Why Russia monopolizes intelligence on Central Asian jihadists in Syria


With participation of jihadists from Central Asia in the Syrian civil war Russia became a vital source of intelligence for regional security services. Assets on the ground and developed ties with Damascus allow Moscow to gather information about foreign fighters and, with it, influence broader security ramifications of its own relations with Central Asian republics.

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, there are 5000-7000 foreign jihadists from Russia and Central Asia fighting in Syria and Iraq. Recent report, prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, place number of Central Asians at 8500 individuals, who participate in various capacities in Salafi-jihadist factions.

With the ISIS being largely pushed out from core territories of Iraq and Syria and its organizational and fighting potential being diminished, main threat from the terrorist organization for security and political stability in Russia and Central Asia come from returning experienced veterans or lone-wolf individuals who seek to carry out attacks in the name of radical ideology. In mid December Russian security services apprehended a group of individuals from Central Asia, who were attempting to carry out attacks on the eve of New Year holidays.

It may seem that Russian authorities would like to see their Central Asian partners to operate more actively in gathering intelligence on Central Asian jihadists in the Middle East as part of broader mechanism of cooperation in security issues among member states of Organization Collective Security Treaty (OCST). Moscow has been a leading contributor to technical and professional modernization of security forces in the region, as evidenced by multiple large scale anti-terrorism drills.

Russia seems to support current prevailing heavy handed approach in Central Asia in fighting religious radicalism. Despite the fact that this kind of policy may have contributed to deepening frustration among some Central Asian jihadists before they decided to go to Syria, on the whole regional security services managed to suppress religious dissent movements without giving them a chance to carry out large scale acts of violence in the region.

Civil war in Syria and mass participation of Central Asians in this conflict could contribute to activization of local security agencies beyond national borders. The case of Chinese contacts with Damascus is a good example. Peking seeks to improve its capabilities to fight the Uyghur movement by coordination efforts with Syrian government over issues like collection of information on Uyghur fighters located in country. Further dimension of such policy is establishing coordination with Turkey, where many Uyghur fighters established a network of support.

Instead of developing own capabilities for intelligence gathering Central Asian governments rely on Russia. There are two main interrelated forms of increasing dependence of regional governments on Russian security capacities.
In December 2017, a vice-chairman of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee Nurgali Bilisbekov in his meeting with deputies of the Kazakh Senate claimed that national security agences work hard to identity location of Kazakh jihadists in Syria.To do this, government works primarily by using partners' channels in the country, suggesting that all work is done via Russian security apparatus and assets on the ground. 

Yet another reason why regional governments have to rely on Russia assistance is the fact that, while being in their homeland countries jihadists don't many opportunities to self-organize because of the effective anti-terrorism measures, they find good environment in Russia, where recruiters find good breeding ground among estranged and marginalized migrant workers. A head of Russian Federal Security Bureau Alexander Bortnikov recently stated that security and stability in Central Asia after deaf of the ISIS will be contingent on Moscow ability to monitor inflows of migrants from and to Central Asia.

There can be a single underlining reason why Russia would not welcome Central Asian governments to act independently is issues like foreign jihadists and related security coordination with the Middle Eastern states like Iraq, Syria and Turkey. While Moscow can outsource tasks of security provision inside the region to local governments and even support local security agencies in their work by sharing relevant technology and professional skills, it will be inclined to preserve its role as a regional security provider as a source of legitimacy for outsized influence and leadership.