By Martin Woodley
Tectonic shifts in West Asia
Donald Trump’s parting gesture to the Middle East and North Africa, or more correctly West Asia and North Africa, was the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and various Arab states; United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco and the moving of Israel from the US Europe Command (EUCOM) into their Central Command (CENTCOM). These moves were designed to further isolate Iran in the region and respond to the Iran-China partnership in particular, and the changing geopolitical situation in general.
In 2004, President Bush moved Syria and Lebanon to CENTCOM, leaving Israel and the Palestinian Authority in EUCOM. AFRICOM was established four years later, and PACOM was renamed as Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) in 2018—both moves spurred by geopolitical developments in those regions.
However, within the space of a few months it has become clear that the situation in West Asia and North Africa is changing rapidly, with new tectonic shifts taking place. In particular it is interesting to review the situation as illustrated by the situations of Iran and Syria. The Syrian civil war came about as a result of the US attempt to turn the majority Sunni Muslim Arab states against majority Shi’ite Iran. The relationship between the Assad government and Iran is an existential one, which explains the uprising against it led by local Syrian opposition forces in 2011 which were quickly reinforced by armed forces imported by imperialism and its allies.
After just the latest episode in the long trail of destruction across West Asia and North Africa left by the US, its western allies and its regional lackeys, it has become clear that neither Iran nor Syria are going to be toppled. Indeed, the principal US Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, has been conducting an increasing dialogue with its erstwhile enemy Iran, as it seeks to extricate itself from the war in Yemen, which the Biden administration has been increasingly reluctant to continue to support.
Several Arab countries who were originally expecting the fall of the Syrian government after the collapse of the Iraqi and Libyan governments, cut diplomatic ties with Syria. Other Arab countries allied with the United States — such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — actively supported the armed opposition. Now, as it becomes clear that Assad, along with Iran will survive, they are making moves to repair their relations.
Latterly, Egypt and UAE have called for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League, while UAE and Bahrain have reopened their Syrian embassies in Damascus. Also, Jordan has resumed direct commercial flights to Syria.
The biggest game-changer, however, would be a similar U-turn by Turkey, which shares a 911-kilometer-long border with Syria, occupies large chunks of its territory and remains the premier protector of Syria’s armed opposition in the north west of the country. However, Turkey’s role in the Syrian war has been controversial in Turkey, and is growing more unpopular the longer it continues.
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the centre-right “Good Party”, the Iyi, have long advocated restoring ties with Damascus. Such calls are growing louder amid rising public resentment toward an estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey. Violent incidents targeting Syrians are on the rise. Soaring food prices and joblessness are feeding the hostility.
Erdogan said if it were up to him the United States would withdraw its forces from north east Syria and Iraq “as they did from Afghanistan.” This marks the first time Erdogan has publicly said he wants US forces to leave Syria. The conventional thinking has long been that despite its unremitting calls for Washington to end its alliance with the Syrian Kurds, Ankara wants the United States to remain in Syria as a counterbalance to Russia.
Recently, Erdogan was snubbed by President Biden at the recent UN General Assembly when his request for a private meeting was turned down. Not only is Erdogan uneasy about the lack of popular support for the war within Turkey, but he has become increasingly frustrated by the US’ continued support for the Kurdish militia in north east Syria. Instead, he requested a private meeting with Russia’s President Putin which resulted in him being invited to the holiday resort of Sochi.
Despite Turkey appearing to be a loyal servant of the western alliance, for instance making drone sales to Ukraine, and Erdogan’s pledge to never recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, Turkey has continually been excluded from the inner circle of the western alliance. Turkey first applied for membership of the EU in 1987. At that time the main objection raised was Turkey’s poor relations with Greece and the conflict in Cyprus. The matter was deferred until more favourable political and economic conditions existed. The EU reopened the matter again in 2002 only to freeze negotiations again in 2006. The 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan and the subsequent crackdown further damaged Turkey-EU relations.
The 2016 attempted coup d’etat, when sections of the military mounted a coordinated attempt to unseat Erdogan, soured relations with the US in particular. The coup attempt, carried out by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, was defeated when large sections of the populace combined with loyalists in the military to oppose the takeover. The US refusal to arrest Gulen, who lives in the US, particularly angered the Turkish government.
In 2017 Turkey purchased F-35 stealth fighter jets from the US and S-400 air defence system from Russia. As a result of the purchase of the Russian air defence missile system, Turkey was removed from the joint strike fighter program, and subjected to sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Act. However, Erdogan has claimed that Turkey has received neither the fighters nor the return of the money they had paid. As a result, the meeting with Putin in Sochi has resulted in Turkey purchasing a further brigade of S-400 air defence missiles, along with conventional submarines and a partnership with Russia in the construction of nuclear power stations. There was also an unspecified possibility of the purchase of Russian light fighter aircraft.
The key immediate difficulty for Turkey is their continuing role in Syria. They are angered by the US’s support for the Kurdish militia in north east Syria, and in turn Russia is angered by Turkey’s continuing support for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the extremist Sunni militia operating in Idlib province. The Turkish population are angered by both Turkey’s de facto link to the Kurdish militia due to being on the same side as the US, and the presence of 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey resulting from the war. There seems to be only one solution for Erdogan – a deal with Bashir al Assad which both recognises Syria’s territorial integrity, including north east Syria, and a termination of its support for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This in effect amounts to switching sides in the war continuing its incremental pivot away from the western alliance and toward Russia.
Were Turkey to take this step it would further diminish the US in West Asia and North Africa and allow the regional powers to regain control of their territory, resources and mutual relations.