Welcome to the Club of Amsterdam Journal.
Felix F Bopp, Founder & Chairman
Middle-East Situation Report
by Hardy Schloer, Managing Director, Schloer Consulting Group,
Advisory Board, Club of Amsterdam
The Middle East: There in no more a complex space on earth right now. And its stress is bleeding outward – the effects of which are continuously drawing other war actors into the widespread armed conflict that is still centered in Syria.
Ironically, ISIL has almost become a secondary story as the war theater has filled with so many combatants with such an extreme and convoluted web of political and economic interests that ISIL’s branding has been almost diminished to a sub plot at current – all the while their operations are expanding effectively into many other geographies, fueled in part their by skillful use of electronic online technologies. At the same time, their adherents are growing in number – fast, and everywhere. In short, they still continue to win, despite their position as David fighting an army of Goliaths.
The conflict that started in the Middle East is fostering adverse affects throughout the world. It is applying pressure in a ripple effect across markets, supply chains, travel routes, government budgets and has begun to exponentially escalate social tensions almost everywhere, and on any level.
At a time when a transition of superpowers is silently underway with a thick conveyor belt of politicking to claim assets in a world that has again taken to the redesign of borders (think South China Sea, Kuril Islands, Crimea, Moldova/Transnistria, Syria/Iraq/ISIL, Nigeria/Boko Haram, Israel/Palestine, etc.), and a global debt problem so far beyond any plausible resolution, the pressure our world is under will lead to massive catastrophes anywhere and everywhere – Africa, Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East itself, of course.
Compounding and fueling this stress with considerable negative energy is the media. Especially mass media whose news stories see lots of eyes and where the consistent flow of something less than objectivity is published, people are moved and influenced by the negative-laced sentiment. We’ll use the case in point where approximately 350 well publicized Islamic extremist terror attacks (about 1 per day across the entire planet) have claimed the lives of some 4,500 people so far this year (2015). Although atrocious, these number of deaths are fewer than half the number of people that died indrunk driving accidents (10,076) in the US in 2013.
These accidents are every bit as traumatic for their suddenness and their grotesqueness, but they don’t get nearly the same dramatic media coverage and thus these horrible incidents don’t move people to react in the same way. Terrorism is great news, and it drives the decisive actions of governments to commit thousands of soldiers, and billions of dollars to engage in the further destruction and negative influence of the Middle East as a whole – and this ‘ripple effect of violence’ disease is spreading with Europe the most recent geography to be enjoined. Its effects are materializing as angry protests, deep polarization, divided politics, border fences in free migratory zones and new constitutional powers designed to filter policy to specific ethnicities.
What is now most bothersome in the Middle East – and now Europe – is that all of the strategies have become reactionary. We see virtually no proactivity which flatly means we’re merely treating symptoms; we’re not doing much to prevent the infection from ever happening, or healing. This is in part because the house is on fire, in part because resources are thin and in part because politicians have constituents screaming to act right now to stop the terror.
If we can identify one positive trend, at least in theory, it is that we have not seen any snap military response to the downed Russian warplane on November 24 – yet.
Russia’s response has been metered so far as mostly political, and all external stakeholders are seeking to mitigate stress at this point. The downside here is that the ‘free pass’ has been used. This conflict will likely not tolerate another incident of this nature and this theater is so filled with pressure that any incident, even honest error, will likely ignite a full-scale conventional war (with some remote risk to escalate into limited nuclear applications) where every current participant will have to choose definitive sides – a true horror scenario on a global scale, but now within the realm of possibility – nay probability.
What counters further the dim ray of hope and what really underpins why this conflict is so dire in its prospective outcome is the nature of the relationships of these involved in the war.
Just a few examples:
” It has become clear by now that Turkey has been supporting ISIL through the supply of arms, logistics, and commercialization of its oil products – likely since the advent of ISIL. All the while, Turkey is a NATO member that is fighting ISIL (supposedly) and ISIL is fighting the Assad regime in Syria. How can this be possible?
” For many months, the Assad regime in Syria has been buying oil products, namely fuel, from ISIL so that it can fuel its jets to bomb ISIL. ISIL buys weapons, recruits soldiers and finances its operations with these sales – and the circle continues. How can this be possible?
” The US supports various ‘moderate’ opposition groups that are fighting Assad and ISIL concurrently. It has been proven that many of these US financed fighters have jumped ranks and joined ISIL with US supplied weapons to fight the US coalition.
” Everybody opposes Assad except Russia who is supporting his regime. All the while, everybody that opposes Assad is coordinating attacks against extremists together with Russia who is concurrently attacking the US coalition backed opposition fighters. How is this possible?
” The US is launching air attacks against ISIL from the same air base (Incirlik) in Turkey that Turkey is using to propagate air attacks against the PKK/Kurdish fighters. All the while, the US has worked together with the Kurds as the ground forces in the fight against ISIL. How is this possible?
All this clearly indicates a total loss of society’s healthy judgment to plan for a sustainable future – in the Middle East, or elsewhere – where plenty of other problems are waiting to be solved (economies, finance, poverty, climate change, water/food scarcity, structural reforms, etc.), without all of these man-made social disasters mentioned above. There is no external force that tells any of these war actors, to get up in the morning, pick up the gun, and start shooting and killing other fellow humans – yet, everyone is following the beat of the war drums – hypnotized, mesmerized and fanaticized. To watch this entire scenario from an outside perspective is truly horrifying and shocking.
Arab reticence about tackling ISIL is not primarily about military might. The Saudis and Emiratis have powerful air forces bought at vast expense from western defense contractors, though both are now busy fighting a war in Yemen, its rising human toll overshadowed by the larger conflict in the Levant.
The Gulf states are pursuing contradictory policies; on the one hand there is this official undertaking to fight ISIL, but at the same time they are involved in a struggle against what they view to be the Shia/Persian domination of the region. They want to be seen to be helping their allies but they are deeply concerned about domestic perceptions – they don’t want to be seen to be fighting Sunnis. It is a very difficult situation for them.
Longstanding Arab suspicions of Iran have worsened considerably since July’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran, not because the deal is inherently bad, but because of the fear it supposes upon them – and some Saudi behaviors that infuriate Iran, such the Hajj disaster in Mecca in September, arrests of Saudi princes on drugs and abuse charges (Beirut amphetamines, Los Angeles house party). These events anger Iran as they feel the House of Saud is a poor steward of Islam’s holiest real estate in Mecca and Medina.
Ambivalence in Arab capitals also reflects fears of growing domestic sympathy for ISIL and al-Qaida, in the absence of any political reform in the bleak aftermath of the Arab spring, in monarchies and republics alike. People remain disillusioned, as promises of reform have not been fulfilled, nor has life improved. Hence, this is the reason we still see very high levels of social tension across the region that is being dealt with in exactly the same manner – suppression by force and/or increased social welfare programs that are wholly unaffordable with the passing of every day oil prices remain below $100.
We are seeing terrible polarization that leaves no middle ground – across government, society and amongst intellectuals. There is no room for another opinion. It’s ‘us versus them,’ Shia vs. Sunnis and Persians against Arabs. The disease has not been tackled, ISIL is a symptom of decades of tyranny – the root cause is not being addressed.
In private many people do defend ISIL – not necessarily their brutality, but they try to justify it in one way or the another. They say: ‘OK they’ve killed a few people, but look how many Syrians have been massacred by Assad or Shia militias or Palestinians by Israel or Iraqis by western intervention.’
National interests everywhere take precedence over regional ones. Turkey insists it backs the fight against ISIL but seems more concerned to contain its Kurdish enemies at home and across the borders in Iraq and Syria. Iran talks of its commitment to fight “tafkiri” terror – more authentically its codename for Sunni extremists – while keeping Assad in power and maintaining its dominance in Baghdad.
As long as the rift between Iran and the Saudis is so wide, they won’t join the same coalition. The second impediment is the Assad question. Unless that is tackled, you won’t be able to mobilize Sunni forces – either Syrians or other Arabs.
So is there a solution in the larger context?
We have a bona fide and rapidly escalating global crisis. It will not go away without certain people agreeing to move beyond their grievances, otherwise large swathes of our world might just fight to the death.
There is one necessary first step forward – two principle players that must connect and agree peace; Saudi Arabia and Iran. As improbable as this sounds, it is a necessary part of the solution to stop this escalation. Without this one act happening, this war – a world war – will likely only end after a bloodbath of global proportions. And what’s worse is that this cycle will begin all over once the war has ended because those involved can no longer fight. The hatred will not have been solved, nor addressed.
Is it too late?
In last month’s issue of our Middle East Situation Report, we stated that the Middle East could still save itself by agreeing to take its problems into its own hands, but that this ability could be eliminated if a larger actor became too vested. With Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24, this opportunity may have been missed as Russia will retaliate – and it has already invested billions in its regional war efforts.
Having said that, and although we know by first hand ‘on the ground’ accounts by Latakia residents that the Russians are making land reclamation gains against extremists in Syria, this war will be longer and more costly than they can afford.
What about the Russia/Turkey conundrum?
Russia did not join the war in Syria to keep extremists from its borders. It joined for economic reasons – the same as all of the other participants.
In fact, we will tell you that Russia feels it needs these wars now for economic reasons that weigh-in well beyond the war itself. Although the myth about war being good for the economy has been effectively debunked, its not so bad for corrupt nations who are expert at operating in black markets.
For Russia, its economy is flagging with the prospect that its principle commodity in fossil fuels is diminishing in demand and will, sooner than later, see it quickly demand that its economy diversify to offset flagging oil and gas sales – the same as all the Gulf states.
The entry of Russia into the Syria war made it a world war and the attachment of the now conflict between two global titans that were completely uninvolved just a few months ago is evidence of the seriousness of what is now in play. Not just are they involved in the Syria war militarily, they have now spurned their own conflict. Tornadoes, begetting tornadoes; something that happens in exceptionally rare firestorms. The Turkey/Russia conundrum is exactly this – a firestorm.
With the Turkey/Russia showdown, there is considerable risk for both.
For Russia, one of the greatest threats is the prospective loss of its shipping lane from the Black Sea through the Bosporus and into the Mediterranean and beyond. It will defend its access to the Bosporus at any cost as it has no choice if it is to survive its economic spiral underpinned by unthinkable low oil prices (trading in the $36’s as of 12/8/15), western sanctions and a ballooning war expense with troops and equipment in two theaters (Ukraine and Syria). So important to its economy is the Bosporus that Russia would likely explode the entire waterway rather than see the Turks close it down to Russian waterborne traffic. If the Russia/Turkey impasse turns military, Turkey has the right to restrict Russian passage. This would be the equivalent of 9/11 for Russia.
To this point (early December 2015), Putin and Russia are winning the post-Su-24 downing handily. There strategy has been swift, calculated and has continued to place greater pressure on Turkey. As this conflict is simply another (so far) political war beyond the Syria military war, its implications are far greater should it turn military, too.
Putin has long been testing the resolve of NATO countries and this is the event to stress test that accord to its maximum…and he is. It is something of a blessing in disguise for Putin, whereby he must truly be careful what he wishes for should NATO decide to stick. Understanding this, we can bet that Putin’s continued actions will be not only to corner Turkey/Erdogan, but also, carefully, to see how far it can get NATO to bend before breaking.
Turkey, on the other hand, has lost its international esteem perhaps faster and further than any other country so globally well respected just a three short years ago. What happened?
If we compare Turkey and Russia from a leadership standpoint, both are led by strong, unflinching dictatorial-types who are each bent on seeing the return of their respective countries to their former empire days, Putin to Mother Russia and Erdogan to its Ottoman glory days. And this is where this conflict becomes all the more dangerous as both are likely to sacrifice pragmatism for ego. And with the Su-24 incident, one of these two, if not both, will have to take a damaging uppercut and be bloodied if there is to be an avoidance of a second war on top of the one in Syria.
Both in recent years has been viewed as being of the most powerful individuals on earth; Putin today and Erdogan just a few short years ago. Either weay, both are elder statesmen on today’s world stage, akin to a Muhammed Ali/Mike Tyson fight.
At the end of the day, this conflict is brewing in a pressure tank sitting atop a really hot fire and is the likely trigger point for a massive world war, particularly as both (more Putin thus far) ratchet up the rhetoric against the other almost every day while each test the other’s resolve.
Where’d this all start?
As we have maintained since May of this year, the Middle East leadership vacuum is what has allowed this conflict to proliferate beyond control. In fact, we correctly predicted each sequel of deterioration of this conflict space in each month of our reporting.
Ironically, nobody truly wants this conflict, and worse, nobody can afford it. Therefore, a leader from the Middle East must rise above all and become a unifying voice. Somebody MUST get Riyadh and Tehran together and get them to understand what will happen if they cannot agree to get along.
Not only will millions of people die – and we are clearly and unquestionably on this trajectory – but the monarchies will all disappear, except for the Islamic State whose caliphate that will rise from the ashes of this war. So what governments will disappear? House of Saud? Gone. Sultan Qaboos? Gone. Assad? Gone. King of Jordan? Gone. The royals in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain? All Gone.
Nobody seriously wants this war at this stage, except for the Islamic State, or whatever the next global Jihadist Movement might name itself.
Until the world can transition away from hydrocarbons to power our existence, everyone will be held hostage by ultra-violent extremists who will control oil in their new caliphate. And so what does our world look like through these glasses? We know what this world looks like. It is carefully described in their handbooks.
Therefore, it is now time for the Middle East to unite behind common leadership to lead the Middle East back to peace, and prepare for an economically valuable future beyond oil revenues.
Sadly, neither will this happen, nor will anyone in the entire Middle East believe that it is even possible. In fact, with Russia’s active entry into the Middle East war game, all hope is nearly gone for such bold solution. Therefore, the next masters of the Middle East will be – in spite of all efforts to the contrary – the Islamic State or its equivalent successor.
For what its worth, the bombing of ISIL by all of these new Syrian war participants, to include Russia, France and most recently the UK is purely symbolic. These governments are all fully aware that their military involvement will not defeat Jihadism, much less deter any terror attacks anywhere.
Moreover, it will not stay contained in the Middle East. This united movement will be fueled equally from both sides – Shia and Sunnis – and it will spread globally; in fact, it already has, and it will further. Where common sense and focus on a better and sustainable future could not bring Shia and Sunni behind a common goal, ultra-violent jihadist currents will do it for them – unfortunately, most current leaders in the Middle East will by then no longer in power to give it a peaceful ending.
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