Trumpist vs Putinist Geopolitics in Middle-East – A poker vs a chess player: What’s the name of the game and who’s winning?

Trumpist vs Putinist Geopolitics
A poker vs. a chess player
A snapshot over the current Dec 2019-Jan 2020 geopolitical situation in the Syrian conflict. The study analyzes the balance of power of the main actors involved in the conflict.
Snapshot over Middle East Geopolitics

Introduction

When the Ukrainian crisis emerged in early 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and held a public referendum to legitimize the inclusion as an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, all eyes of public opinion were shifted from the ongoing Syrian crisis in Middle East to the Donbass region. Washington, under the Obama administration, together with the European leaders through Brussels, attempted a unified proclamation by condemning Moscow in intruding in Ukrainian affairs, destabilizing the region and illegally detaching territories from it. Economic sanctions and an expulsion of diplomats from both sides shortly followed, making many scholars and journalist to recall the beginning of a new Cold Era between the West and the East. Nonetheless, the focal point of actions was soon restored in Middle East in 2016 when Russia decided to intervene militarily in Syria aiming to end the conflict and stabilize the region. On the other side, the US underwent a major change in presidential elections, and sought the coming of Trump administration in power. While the conflict in Syria is still ongoing at the time of writing this paper, the actual equilibrium of forces in Middle East reflects a U-turn of 180°, and the balance of power seems to have elevated all other actors except Pentagon.

Considering the recent occurred events and the dynamics in play by the actors involved in the Syrian conflict, the study will attempt to identify new motions that are set into play in the Syrian theater of operations, and what implications do they pose in the near future for the entire regional power dynamics. By taking the latest geopolitical snapshot over the region, this study will attempt to hinder light to some recent questions that have been raised by contemporary scholars and IR theorists. Trying to understand the latest actual geopolitical consequences in the region, the study will perform a link-analysis methodology between various events, actions and declarations by leaders of all countries involved in Syria, following realist and constructivist approaches from IR.

Thus, the structure of the paper will follow three main patterns in the Syrian theater of operations, that require answers through link-analysis: First, the strengthening of the coalition Iran-Russia-Turkey: under what circumstances and how was the coalition achieved, also who was in pol-position? Second, the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw the American boots on the ground- what is the rationale behind such action from Pentagon’ point of view and what effects did such action trigger in the power dynamics in Middle East? Third, the latest drone high-rank target killing (or assassination if we follow the International Law terminology) of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani- did such bold action really eliminate a current threat, or did actually create new multiple threats following a “hydra-effect” in Middle East and probably beyond?

After analyzing those three main patterns and explaining why were crucial in changing the stage in Syria, the second part of the paper will turn to the main title. Fourth topic will analyze which country seems to have gained most considering its interests vis~a~vis the others? Lastly but not least, following the preceding topic, which leader has demonstrated higher skills and capabilities in elevating their country’s position in the region and in the global context? Having set up the roadmap for this paper, let us now follow it.

I.  The creation of the tripartite coalition Iran-Russia-Turkey: which was the playmaker?

II. Trump’s Administration decision of withdrawal: is there any rationale behind the retreat, any strategy at all?

III. The high-rank target-killing of an Iranian General: a US exit-strategy or a scapegoat for returning boots on ground?

IV. With the current snapshot over the geopolitical power dynamics in Middle East, which country seems in a better position?

V.  Reflections: The poker vs the chess player- What type of game is in play?

References

I.  The creation of the tripartite coalition Iran-Russia-Turkey: which was the playmaker?

If we glance back into the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Syrian civil war was considered and viewed simply as a local and internal Syrian conflict. However, when ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) or Daesh (as the Arabic world refers to, in order not to address it either as a state, neither as adhering to Islam considering the mass atrocities, genocide and crimes against humanity that the subjects of this self-proclaimed state have done in the name of religion) started to emerge in 2014 after capturing Mosul from Iraqi forces, with the shadow of restoring the former Islamic Caliphate stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, the alarm bells started to ring sharply in Washington, Brussels and Moscow. The Syrian disease had undergone a mutation, and without an immediate international intervention, the entire region of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was risking to be affected by this contagious pandemic virus.

The first country to react and intervene was the US, which sought to enforce the Iraqi borders and start an offensive against Daesh. In forming its strategy, the White House sought to instrumentalize various insurgent groups in the area which could fight against ISIL, like the oppositional forces called Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF) which oppose the Ba’ath regime of Assad. However, crucial to this strategy, was the ethnic group of Kurds who reside on both sides of Syrian borders, in Iraq and in Turkey.  A few more words are necessary to explain the American relationship with the Kurds, because the later has become a decisive factor in the outcome of the war, as well as on what will come in the aftermath.

The use of Kurds simply as instruments to advance the states agenda, has been utilized by US even before, and not alone but together with Iran, if we go back in the 1970s. As CIA declassified reports confirm, US backed the Kurds in Iraq in 1972-1975 on direct request by the Iranian Shah Pahlavi at the time, and as soon as the Iraqi government agreed with a favorable solution to Iran, support to the Kurds was cut off and all the Kurds were left in the mercy of the Saddam Hussein’ regime.[1] In fact the Kurds were on the verge of a suitable deal for border autonomy with Baghdad at the time, when Pentagon advised their leader Mustafa Barzani to refuse the offer, because otherwise this would not satisfy Teheran, confirming once again that the ethnic group was simply a “useful tool for weakening [our ally’s enemy’s] potential for international adventurism.”[2] In fact, the US Sec. of State at the time, Henry Kissinger, did not even reply to the plea of Barzani pledging for US humanitarian intervention after withdrawing succor and closing both eyes on the bloody upheaval in power of Saddam Hussein. [3] Kissinger is quoted saying: “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”[4]

Having explained this part of the history, will be helpful to explain later the nowadays’ feeble Kurdish-American relationship. Furthermore, this untrustworthy relationship consists the Achilles’ heel on how this moment was seized by another leader to stuck a new deal, namely Putin.  

In 2015, following the US intervention, Kremlin became alarmed that the spread of American influence in the region would be further consolidated by abolishing the Assad regime and supporting the opposition forces, therefore it decided to intervene upon a formal request by Assad. Moscow was enough with the “Arab Springs” in MENA, and was suspicious that even the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv was another Western attempt to pull Ukraine out from the Kremlin orbit. So the Russian operations began with a massive air support bombarding ISIL positions initially, and then targeted also Syrian governmental opposition militant groups. This continued up until Nov. 24, 2015 when Turkish F16s under the direct command of Pr. Erdogan shoot down a Russian Su-24 close to its aerial territorial borders.[5] After this international incident, a turning point began in the US coalition. Let’s turn now to the Turkish position in the region.

Up to the Su-24 incident, Turkey was aligned to US as a NATO member country, and was assisting locally the Sunni Arab oppositional forces only by hitting the Kurdish insurgents close to its borders by destroying their bases. It is exactly on this part that Putin turns his attention, by approaching more Teheran, and offering more support towards the Kurds, while instructing Assad to promise an autonomous territory of Kurdish inhabited areas under the New Federal Syrian Constitution. This was absolutely a direct hit to Ankara. Turkey has been a neutral regional power player, playing the pacifying role in times of crisis during the Cold War, especially mediating between the Israelis’ and their Arabian foes. In the wake of Syrian civil war, Ankara sought to support the Sunni Arab forces which resided with the rebels against Assad’s regime, thus joining the US led coalition.

Anyways, in the aftermath after the Russian intervention and the emergence of the fight against Daesh, Ankara’s main goal immediately was focused in depriving the Kurds, localized within its territory, to get in accordance and gain position with their Kurdish counterparts in Syria (who, as will be explained in the next topic, were promised local autonomy in exchange for their pro-Assad support during the civil war and ending ISIL remnants in the region), as well as create a direct bridge for connecting and excessing influence on the Sunni-Arabs.[6] Although such goals put Ankara in total crash with other NATO partners, Erdogan has always cried out about the partners for not taking Turkey’s interests into account, inherently referring to what stands to be the Turkish nightmare: a total eruption and rebellion of Kurdistan in the region, claiming autonomy or even worse, total sovereignty from Turkey. Under such fears, Erdogan launched a vast military operation codenamed “Olive Branch” during Feb-Mar 2018 against the Syrian Kurds based in the North-Eastern parts of Syria, with many international media reporting ethnic cleansing and other human rights violations. The scenario was an opportunistic movement by Erdogan, considering that the Kurds in this area (Afrin) were part of the SDF forces and were against Assad fighting, thus being an ally also of US. Such situation created (again) the first sign of mistrust by Kurds towards the White House.[7] At the same time, the US led coalition was showing also the first signs of cracks due to the high costs of maintaining an alliance with another member country which considers different parties in the conflict as terrorist and existential threat at home (the People’s Protection Units, representing the Syrian Kurds which is the parallel organization of PKK in Turkey).[8]

At this end, after the plane-incident, Putin evidently seized the moment at his own advantage by moving on to strengthen his bilateral cooperation with Teheran on the fight against ISIL, and for securing stability and peace in the region. Additionally, Putin managed successfully to stuck a deal with Pr. Erdogan for delivering the new S400 Air Defense Missile System in Dec. 2017[9], causing in return a further split of Turkey with US and NATO in general. In retaliation, US suspended the delivery of F-35 as well as Turkey’s participation in the chain supply production of the F-35 program. At this moment, we turn our attention to explain the Iranian position in the region.

Since 1979, Iran has been allies with Syria in the front for proxy wars against Saudi Arabia and Iraq, although sharing the same party ideology of Ba’ath at the time. Additionally, through Damascus, Teheran is able to operate and extend its support further to Lebanese Shiites and Hezbollah, likewise in Palestine through Hamas to undermine Israel influence in the region.[10] Iran, being on the other spectrum of the Arab world and protector of Shiite Moslems, with the other end led by Saudi Arabia for all the Sunnis, has a long history of quarrel and fighting for supremacy in the Islam world and influence in MENA. In the proxy wars that have been sponsored by S. Arabia and Iran, the latter succeeded in imposing a friendly regime in Oman in 1971, when Sultan Qaboos was helped by then Shah Reza Pahlavi to depose his own father (Sultan Said bin Tamur) who was tied more with Iraq and S. Arabia.[11] Sultan Qaboos would rise to become one of the most eminent balance holders and honest brokers in the region up today, where in times of crisis every leader from central Asia up to Africa would rely on Oman’ Sultan to ease the tensions and resolve dispute in a peaceful way. Nonetheless, the aged Sultan Qaboos has created justified anxiety and worry amongst the contemporary leaders of the region regarding his successor and if the same neutrality policy will be maintained, and who will be called to ease tensions in times of crisis.[12] Logically, Iran has extended its support in favor of Assad’s governmental forces in the Syrian conflict, whereas the Wahhabi dynasty in Riyadh followed suit her US ally in providing succor for the rebel forces fighting against Assad. However, the Iranian strategy in supporting the Shiite Kurds is not to secure for them a complete independence, as this would enable a Turkish invasion, but rather to stabilize them under Damascus with a local considerable autonomy.[13] On the other side of the front, the Saudis support to the rebel groups (Assad oppositional forces) continued up until another important event occurred in late 2018, explained below.

The reverse shift in Saudi’s FP came with the assassination of Jamal Khashoogi, a Saudi dissident journalist with American citizenship contracted by The Washington Post in US. The killing occurred on Oct. 2 2018, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Much controversy was spilled around the news at the time, but as the Turkish authorities started to dig deeper unto the case under the special supervision of Pr. Erdogan, in late Sep. 2019, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman publicly accepted the responsibility for the death of Khashoogi “because it happened under his watch”. Nonetheless, he denied to have been involved or ordering it, referring to the death squad “Tigers” composed by 15 Saudi Secret Service agents that were found to be involved in the murder.[14] As investigations were ongoing, after a direct meeting between Prince Salman with Pr. Trump, the American leader rushed to declare his support for the Prince, and despite the reports by the UN Human Rights Agency, Turkish authorities as well as the FBI, Pr. Trump vetoed the resolution already passed in US Congress by both Houses urging to end the US military assistance for S. Arabia’s war in Yemen.[15] Apparently, Pr. Trump behaved purely as a businessman remaining faithful to his “America’s first”, when seeking to save Prince Salman was actually seeking a new deal with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for the sale of F-35.[16] Nevertheless, after Khashoggi’s assassination, as the Turkish investigation were (and still are) ongoing, S. Arabia began to withdraw its supply-landlines and weaponry support towards the rebels in Syria, enabling Turkish forces an open-battle ground against the Kurds in the region, likewise to take the Sunni lead in MENA.

America's First Choice- definitely not the Human Rights

Thus far, in coordination with Russian and Iranian advisors and forces, Damascus strengthened decisively its position and gained almost all the lost territories from ISIL, and progresses likewise in re-taking most of the rebelled towns. Indisputably it was Moscow who seized the moment after an incident which was sought only to freeze the bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey, but apparently had more large profound effects. Was Vladimir Putin who immediately compensated the move, by shifting entirely the FP in Middle East by becoming the playmaker for the new coalition between Russia, Iran and Syria. Before explaining how Turkey was absorbed into this line, first is necessary to jump in the next topic where will be explained the American FP in the region, and the decision of Trump Administration to withdraw its troops in the region.   

II.  Trump’s Administration decision of withdrawal: is there any rationale behind the retreat, any strategy at all?

When the Bush Administration decided to enter Iraq in 2003, critics pointed out that there was a lack of strategy on how to get out. The Obama Administration was criticized later in 2014 when for setting the “red line” borders on Assad for the use of chemical weapons and taking no action later[17], weakening thus the credibility of Pentagon in carrying out their threats. In other words, Obama inherited a feeble situation in Iraq after Bush won the fighting battle on the ground but lost the war on democracy and stability on the region. Obama did not enter Syria, although was equivocal in Assad’s regime (naming it the Butcher of Damascus) to come to an end. However, lacking a clear strategy in stabilizing the region and exiting the country, the White House under the Obama Administration understood that a 2nd Iraq would be another unstable brick in the Middle East puzzle.[18] Trump Administration instead, inherited from the Obama Administration the ongoing war against ISIL and the Syrian conflict, as well as the “War on Terror” declared by the Bush Administration back in 2001. Anyways, under what circumstances did the Trump Administration decided to withdraw American boots on Syria?

The only answer for finding Trump’s decision, is if we follow the trajectory of events already covered in the first topic. The linear function points out again to the Kurdish factor as the dependable variable inside the Syrian equation. On Oct. 6 2019, after a direct call-phone with Pr. Erdogan, Donald Trump took [another besides many considered as] a controversial FP decision to put out the American troops in the North-Eastern parts of Syria, exactly those areas which are inhabited mostly by the Kurds. This came as a result because of the Astana Talks since in January 2017, initiated by Pr. Putin to forge the new coalition between Russia and Iran, with the goal of putting an end to the conflict and restore order and stability in the entire region, as well as undermine Turkey in retaliation for the downing of Su-24. Analysts at the time, were not sure why Putin was taking such an active role in this part of the world, entering a new costly adventure seemingly endless, only for securing perhaps a naval base in the Mediterranean Sea (Tartus), was considered a very small gain for such a huge undertaking, except if he was planning to project further Russian influence in the region.[19] Anyways, Trump decided to provide silently “green light” to Erdogan, and this decision it’s not by surprise that was regarded by many analysts and scholars as a sacrilegious betrayal towards the Kurds.[20]

Other leaders also interpreted that as another sign of weakness by US for playing the world’s watchdog. What followed suit, on Oct. 9th 2019, probably upon hearing his advisors’ reports and fears that Turkey would repeat its operation “Olive Branch” (in 2018), now codenamed “Operation Peace Spring”, sent the infamous letter which still today is making the rounds around the diplomatic circles in the world, regarding the Trumpist style and “diplomatic courtesy” in writing.[21] Reports came out to be true, as on the same date Erdogan had authorized another bombing raid campaign to expel the Kurds further by 30km, aiming to create a secure safe-cordon line. Trump immediately sent Vice-Pr. Pence and Sec. of State Pompeo for talks in Ankara. The situation was tense, up to the point when Russia choose to harden its position towards Turkey. The vacuum created by US retreat, offered ample opportunity for Kremlin to intervene in order to patrol the safe zone, prohibiting further fighting between the SDF Kurdish fighters (reminder: Syrian Democratic Forces) and the Turks, and likewise strengthen the Russian position as the honest broker between all parties.[22] The Kurds’ leaders on the other hand, smelling what Marx has said that history tends to repeat itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce, rushed on their own to sign a deal with the Syrian government and gain their protection as well as that of the Russians.[23] The next deal between Erdogan and Putin was reached in Sochi on 22 Oct.’19, for jointly patrolling the 30km safe zone, pushing the Kurds further in south.[24]

The outcome? Facing the retreat decision from Trump Administration in Oct’ 19 to pull out all American troops except a few, so to guard only oil infrastructure in some Syrian areas, seems to have a clear “exit strategy” although it lacks any rationale behind it despite facing criticism for being present only for the sake of the black gold. Even the realists cannot answer all questions that arise from such decision: while realists might defend the defensive role that US is taking in order to save up costs, US soldier’s lives, and fighting for an endless conflict without a defined strategic objective for Pentagon, the actual retreat has created new problems like the loss in US credibility as an ally, escalating the conflict due to the vacuum created by its missing presence and the power dynamics rising from that move, by other powers that have stepped in, thus losing its influence in the zone in a multiplied rate. [25] On the other hand, the price of US paid to maintain its influence apart from investing 5 years of FP in the region, was more in dropping supplies to the SDF fighters who have lost 11.000 lives,[26] contrast to 1000 US troops assigned to operate in Syria, working more as supportive and training operatives for the SDF.[27] Moreover, realists have to consider also the image of White House current administration in the eyes of other opportunist leaders who seek to profit in other conflict zones where America still has presence and plays the watchdog, like Korean Peninsula, the Balkans, the Pacific containing China’s rise and guaranteeing Japan’s interests etc. Credibility is a powerful factor in conducting foreign policy, particularly when you are a superpower, and considering nowadays’ world which has been transformed in multipolar centers, where regional powers are fighting for more influence and prestige, a loss in credibility might encourage regional powers to take unprecedented actions that might not satisfy America’s and its allies’ interests.

All this has led to a new FP nicknamed lately in sarcastic tones as “strategic ambiguity”.[28] Nonetheless, perhaps the Trump Administration decided to “reshuffle the cards” again with another bold action that surprised the world, analyzed briefly in the next topic before jumping to our second section which will provide answers directly to the titles of this paper.

III.  The high-rank target-killing of an Iranian General: a US exit-strategy or a scapegoat for returning boots on ground? 

In the morning of Jan. 3, 2020 the world was awaken with the flash news of the killing of a high-rank Iranian general. What had occurred was that three missile US drone commanded attacked a car escort just outside the perimeter of Baghdadi international airport. The primary target was not an ordinary terrorist, by the Commander in Chief of the Special Quds Force Unit of Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major-General Qassem Soleimani. The creation of the this special unit was designed since Ayatollah Khomeini came in power, with the purpose to export Iranian Islamic revolutionary spirit abroad in Middle East, by creating contact and support paramilitary groups in clandestine way. And not by coincidence, along the other victims, second VIP was also Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of the Kataib Hezbollah group financed by Iran, which made the attacks at the US embassy and many other raids led against US troops, and for which the US undertook the raids in Dec.’19 that in turn generated the Iraqi to protest and attack the Embassy fortification by the end of Dec.’19. Third victim was the son in law of Soleimani, who was a member of Lebanese Hezbollah.[29] Clearly, the strike was a gold shot to US.

While Soleimani is considered the 2nd most important and powerful person in Teheran after Khomeini, he was regarded as a destabilizing factor and a threat to international order according to the White House and its allies, do to his clandestine operations with the Quds Force. Washington held him responsible in the words of Trump “directly and indirectly for the deaths of millions of people.” While cold-blood policy-makers might understand the necessity of taking such bold action by Pentagon under the plea for protecting US, on the other hand there is huge debate over the nature of this target-killing. Being not a non-state actor, but a high political figure of another state, is normal that Teheran FM furiously attacked US for committing an act of terrorism. This questions the drone-targeting program for blurring the lines and non-distinguishing between non-official combatants that are not subject of the Geneva Convention, and the official ones.[30] While there is huge tension in the time of writing and fears for escalations to a direct open conflict, after Iran declared that it would avenge its commanders assassination, the question raised here is why at this moment the Trump administration ordered such a bold action? What are the implications that follow after?

The assassination or killing (depends how one wants to frame it following either the political nature or the lawfulness of the order), although was a surprise move by the White House, was already somehow expected. Earlier, Trumps threatened Teheran by accusing it openly for orchestrating the attacks at the US Embassy in Baghdad at the end of Dec.’19.[31]  Notwithstanding, in many occasions Trump declared that he would pull US troops out from the region, in contrary by Jan.1st 2020 he ordered the deployment of an additional 750 troops in Middle East to be added to the 14,000 US troops already operating in the Gulf region since May’ 19.[32] Hence, instead of pulling out, the White House actually decided to send even more troops in.

Another important factor to consider is the connection of Gen. Soleimani in the power-dynamics of the region. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was under US surveillance since 2011 in Syria, leading advisory board to the Syrian Army for repressing the protests, then playing a prominent role also in Iraq in organizing the US opposing forces. The White House had gathered intel and had designated Soleimani as the mastermind behind Iran’s strategy in Syria.[33] Moreover, the General had visited Moscow in 2015 to meet and discuss with Russian officials a possible joint intervention in Syria. This trip concluded the suspicions of the White House that Soleimani had become the mastermind of Iran’s strategy in the whole MENA.[34]

Apparently Soleimani was outmaneuvering the White House in the proxy-wars around the Middle East theater of operations. A brilliant tactician and a fierce strategist in taking actions and calculating every move before and after, the Iranian General clearly was the main shield for expanding the Shiite influence across Iranian borders, from Iraq up to Syria and Lebanon. Seemingly, if the White House is having troubles with one Putin on the other side of the Atlantic, now imagine if a 2nd satellite of Putin demonstrating the same mindset, would come in power in the center of Middle East and Asia, substituting Khomeini after his death. However, US critics’ arguments against the Trump Administration should also be taken into account. Some scholars and domestic political opponents, definitely backlashed the White House by reminding Trump the same accusation that he addressed to Obama back in 2011, for opening a war against Iran to be re-elected.[35] There is no need for much comment here, as history has proven on several occasions the point that leaders, to remain in power, do not hesitate to create conflicts abroad in order to rally support at home.

IV.    With the current snapshot over the geopolitical power dynamics in Middle East, which country seems in a better position?

After the long-analysis covered by the first section, where we looked unto three important phases that have changed the entire theater of operations in Middle East, now we turn to briefly explain what has been gained by each major participating power.

First, Syria definitely is in a better position, considering that ISIL has been almost completely destroyed, the rest of the war is against Assad’s oppositional forces. In that position, Assad has survived to stay in power, thanks to the crucial help received by Putin. With the Russian intervention the tide of war turned in Assad’s favor, and having also the back up of Iran, has rallied the assistance of all Syrian Kurds who have done most of the fighting in eliminating the ISIL warriors. Assad, upon mediation of Putin and instructions from Teheran, managed to stuck a deal with the Kurds, although this has created panic on Ankara. Nonetheless, Damascus has strengthened its position inside the country and the governments’ forces have retaken the major cities and Assad’s former strongholds.

Assad requires support from Putin

Turkey, starting with 2015 plane crash, began a U-turn in its FP in Middle East, closing up more with the Russian led coalition with Iran. The main reason reside again the Kurdish factor. While the Turkish partners in NATO, US, actively backed up the Kurds, this displeased Ankara in many occasions. The moment came when Erdogan was convinced to ease tensions also with Putin after the Su-24 shoot out, and was persuaded to buy the S400 air defense missile system by Russia. This caused the loss of F35 deal with US, pushing Ankara into future possible deal with Russia for the purchase of Su-35 aircrafts.[36] The Turkish situation is very ambivalent, as Erdogan has launched two operations that have fought directly the Kurds in Syria. The last deal with US meant nothing as the 30km safe zone was already imposed, whereas the deal with the Russians to jointly patrol the area actually re-confirms that Ankara is manifesting more trust towards Moscow as the key playmaker in the region, and less on Washington that is ever since declaring to withdraw. The Kurdish card however remains a lethal card in the hands of Moscow. Nonetheless, Erdogan, having total monopoly in unveiling the truth of Khashoggi’s assassination through the investigations, constantly reminds the Saudi Prince Salman that his fate is tied to his will. Turkey definitely seems to have elevated its own position in the Islamic World, substituting S. Arabia at the moment as the focal point for all the Sunni adherents.    

Iran on the other hand, has displayed high cunning skills and maturity in its FP, consistently undermining Washington’s game in the region through covert operations and direct support to its satellite groups. In Syria, Teheran supports the Shiite Kurds within the SDF, and has been keen to reach the ultimate deal in coordination with Moscow too, in convincing the Kurdish forces to join Assad’s governmental forces. Although this support towards Assad and other groups fighting against US led coalition has put more tensions between Teheran and Washington, the former seems to have currently gained the upper hand in the battle of legitimacy in international media. With the zig-zags of Trumps’ FP and the direct order of striking an Iranian official with target-killing, Iran had a pledge against US right now to avenge their general. Many other countries, including Russia, Lebanon, Syria etc. have condemned the killing by framing it as a direct political assassination, making US to be appear no less than in equal terms like ISIL. Nonetheless, the latest news of the shooting of Boeing Flight 752 in the vicinity of Teheran, has damaged the image of Iran. First, Iran denied and claimed that the crash was due to plane’s mechanical errors, but after further investigation and US intel broke out, Teheran admitted openly that was a human error in the Iranian Tor missile defense system (bought from Russia) who decided to launch the missile after the plane was appearing as a cruise missile in the software’s system, and the operator was jammed.[37] More is expected to come up from the investigations, especially as this incident comes minutes after Teheran launched a battery of warning missiles aimed at close proximity of Iraqi military bases that were housing US troops, as retaliation for the killing of Gen. Soleimani.[38] It looks like an astonishing coincidence that this tragedy occurred in the middle of the high tensions between Teheran and Washington, right after the protests in Baghdad, the target-killing of Gen. Soleimani, and the promise for a retaliatory response by Teheran. This tragedy has definitely tied the hands of Teheran for the moment, endeavoring to justify this human error and apologizing towards Ukraine and Canada (most of the passengers were citizens of those countries). Nevertheless, one can see some Faustian fortune within this misfortune, a tragedy in minor proportions, avoiding or at least postponing a greater one that might be in biblical proportions.  

The Kurds, after facing the first stab behind their backs by Turkey, and the second by the Trump Administration for taking no action at all besides solely plain words and threats towards Erdogan, managed lately to sign a deal with Assad, under the umbrella of Moscow and Teheran. Reminding the betrayal by the Nixon Administration in the 70s, the Kurds are aware that no one could be trusted, including the Russians, which for the sake of keeping the Turks within their orbit, might give up the Kurdish card at any moment.

Russia has come out definitely in a better elevated position. By deciding to intervene in Syria in 2015, it shifted the major attention of the world for criticizing its conflict in Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea. Putin used the Kurds after the 2015 plane shoot-down by Turks, by declaring Russia’s support to them and an autonomy in a post-war federal state of Syria, inspiring fear to Erdogan and making him to rethink his strategy by publicly apologizing officially for the shooting of the Russian plane in June 2016.[39] After the apology, Turkey launched immediately “Euphrates Shield” operation and entered North of Syria, whereas Russia closed both eyes and ears from its previous statements towards the Kurds. Additionally, dragging behind the Trump Administration to change 180° US FP from throwing Assad regime towards keeping him in power and hold the ground, Moscow somehow managed to besmirch also Washington with the blood spilled by the “butcher of Damascus”, pushing away the criticism sustained so far solely for its succor to him.

Lastly but not least, the US under the Trump Administration has caused great uncertainties in the region with its ambivalent FP. Its strategic goals have turned towards a defensive stance, in cutting down the costs of maintaining its engagement in the region. However, those goals seem more on the tactical level in the theater of Middle East operations. The consequences are more far reaching in terms of broad strategic implications in FP, considering the loss in integrity for US FP, credibility towards keeping the allegiance towards their allies. The major win for the White House under the Trump Administration, it’s regarding the ability for pulling Russia into the conflict, creating an immersive costly undertaking by the Russians, together with the Iranians to operate and provide support for their interest groups in the conflict. Again, those are short-term tactical goals that can be overrun in the end by US opponents that might have clear long term strategic objectives in the area. As for Washington, considering its zig-zag oscillations in pulling in and out troops, shows a clear sign that Pentagon under the current administration has no clear long term strategic goals in MENA. Trump attempted to use the Kurdish card against Erdogan after the NATO split deal with F-35 after the S400 deal with the Russians by Ankara, pushing the latter into a future potential deal for Su-35 with Moscow. However, the Kurds were not fooled this time, rushing to forge a good deal with the Syrians and Russians to be protected by both Ankara’s surgical strikes, and Washington’s silence. Trump definitely chose to withdraw from Syria, in order to satisfy Erdogan by leaving free-hand to step-in the Kurdish territories. All those movements reinforce the claim that Erdogan’s nightmare is a united Kurdish front. The problem with US hit and run tactics, is that is estranging also existing friends or allies, like Iraq or Israel. Although the assassination of Gen. Suleimani might have left satisfied only Jerusalem, again the retreat policy of US, leaving Assad under the influence of Teheran and Moscow, has made Netanyahu to approach Moscow and lean towards Putin Putin seems a more trusted mediator in relation to Teheran’s support for various militant groups that are designated as terrorist organizations by Israel, like Hezbollah and Hamas. Perhaps even for domestic political gains, Netanyahu sought once again to threaten by annexing parts of West Bank territories where Palestinians live, but surprisingly he was invited by Putin to discuss the matters in Sochi in Sept.’ 19[40], not by Trump, showing clearly that the Russians hold the upper hand in the power dynamics of the region.

V.   Reflections: The poker vs the chess player- What type of game is in play?  

In terms of geopolitics, when a leader and the team of advisors look at the map, they will always have to think in terms of grand strategy and various tactics as instruments for setting in motion the strategy to realize the objectives unfolded in the table. Thus, if one would like to compare geopolitics with a type of board-game, there are always two the most eminent and often declared: poker and chess. However, if one looks closely at the level of the game, if one thinks on strategies, poker does not offer many options to the player except the element of surprise, pressure and patience for the strike moment, as the rest is dependable entirely on luck by the cards. Yet, those are all only one time usable, as your opponent has the ability to learn and trace back your actions in a future scenario by preparing a defensive ground. Chess on the other hand, offers a multitude of scenarios in the field and various options for the same movement. Moreover, it enables the player to think in terms of tactics and strategies by having a plan B, C and more for each move by trying to outmaneuver the opponent by calculating such movements in advance. The more calculations, the better the ability to foresee and make a rational well-weighted decision. So in conclusion, geopolitics definitely resembles more the chessboard, while on the tactical level of the theater of operations, poker can be useful only in short-term tactics. Having found the name of the game, we finally come to the last part of this paper, seeking to answer the second title of this study, and name who is the poker vs the chess-player.

While Trump started his presidential campaign with the ultimate goal of pulling out America from a fight that does not belong to, the reality is that US is still there. Moreover, the oscillations that the Trump Administration have been following in the region do not actually even deserve to be compared with poker, but rather pure bowling. In the beginning, Trump isolated US from other NATO allies as he called for more responsibility within the alliance to share the financial burdens, thus making several countries shaggy in expressing a unified voice in major FP issues. While he might be right to ask for sharing the financial burden of maintaining NATO alive, the moment that he chose was incorrect. Next, with one shoot, Trump attempted to leave all pins in the ground for the other players in two occasions. First, by declaring a total withdraw from Syria, which ultimately failed due to the Kurdish factor which gave a blow to US credibility, the moment was seized to fill the vacuum by another player (Putin/Russia). Second, the target-killing of a high official working for another government (Gen. Soleimani), has caused more insecurity in the region, thus requiring even more US troops to fortify the ground in Iraq (changing once again in U-turn the US FP from exiting into entering deeply to the region). Likewise, more insecure is also the overall position in Middle East, due to the multiple threats that might emerge by Iran’s proxy fighting groups. It appears that Trump has already uncovered all his cards, and Erdogan has been accustomed with the threats from Pentagon, giving signs of indecisiveness from the White House, and showing a total lack of strategic goals in American FP in Middle East besides the exit-option. What will the North-Korean leader interpret such moves? Above all, what will the Russian Premier interpret?

While Erdogan showed that he understands the name of the game, his chess skills definitely seem to be far lower from the Russian counterpart. Turkey gained a bit by securing its southern borders from what considers a “Kurdish threat”, and definitely rising in prominence after controlling the investigation of the Khashoggi case, replacing S. Arabia as leader of the Sunni Muslims. Teheran likewise has shown high maneuverability in the Middle East chessboard, but recently lost the queen figure, which was the mastermind for holding the US into a defensive stance. Lastly, a wrong movement (downing of the Ukrainian plane), has weakened further the Iranian defense position and the lowered the possibility for another attack to avenge their Queen.

On the other side, the Russian President has demonstrated a clear strategic-vision for stabilizing the Middle East and increase the Russian influence in the zone. Above all, Moscow successfully shifted the international media attention from Ukraine in Middle East, pushing further the prying eyes from its apocryphal approach towards its neighbor. The following tactics seem to serve such purpose.Firstly, by deflecting Turkey from the Western camp was a major score, while keeping Iran on the table and easing tensions with Shiite, promulgated a round-table of cohesive discussions over constructing a secure and stabilize future for Syria. Secondly, finalized the coalition bringing Turkey with the initiative in Astana immediately after the American election that brought Trump into the White House. Putin was the first to threaten, and later offer to Erdogan a deal over what appears to be Turkey’s nightmare: a unified Kurdistan. Thirdly, Putin rushed to sign a deal of Kurdish controlled forces under Assad’s government, and intervene to jointly patrol with Turkish forces the 30km safe-zone after closing an eye on Turkish rapid advancement.

In this logic, the Kurdish factor turns out to be three-fold positive outcome for Kremlin. First a favor to Erdogan for leaving him to secure the safe-zone and satisfy his Turkish hardline critics in Ankara. Second, another blow to NATO allies who continue to support the Kurds while Turkey will put national interests first above all. Thirdly, by further dividing the costs of the Syrian campaign with another regional power (Turkey) besides Iran, outmaneuvering Trumps’ earliest major achievement for dragging Russia into the conflict, while compelling the US to switch in supporting the “butcher of Damascus” as referred by the preceding White House Administration. Lastly but not least, Putin secured an exit in the Mediterranean Sea by securing the port of Tartus, and through the rise in position and influence in the region, expand the market by boosting up Russian military complex industry sales. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the West is showing a deep flaw by missing a unified voice in the conflict. The EU, though attempted a mediatory role[41], has no boots to send on ground as it lacks entirely an army, thus focusing only in offering merely soft conciliatory power.[42] Such role strengthens their critics’ voice for being simply an economic union rather a supranational entity of state, lacking any hardcore measures except economic sanctions to be played in those parts of the world. To sum up, Putin definitely knew the name of the game since the beginning when decided to enter the conflict. Unfortunately, for the Western idealists believing in democracy and human rights, he absolutely remains up until now the chess-master in the Middle East theater.

The war goes on... Will it end soon?

[1] Diamond, Gregory A. “The Unexpurgated Pike Report- of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, 1976” (McGraw-Hill: 1992): 136-142.

[2] Ibid: 139.

[3] Ibid: 140-43.

[4] Ibid: 141.

[5] Galeotti, Mark. “Why did it take Turkey just 17s to shoot down Russian jet?” The Guardian (Nov. 26, 2015).

[6] Alavi, Seyed Ali. “Who is the winner in post-ISIS Syria?” Open Democracy, North Africa-West Asia Op-Ed (Oct. 17, 2019): 3-4.  

[7] Stein, Aaron. “Operation Olive Branch: Status update,” Atlantic Council (Mar. 13, 2018).

[8] Kose, Talha. “Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch,” SETA (Nov. 11, 2019).

[9] Wemer, David A. “After Russian air defense deal, can Ankara and Washington repair their relationship?” The Atlantic Council (Jul. 15, 2019).

[10] Fulton, Will et al. “Iranian Strategy in Syria,” A joint report by the American Enterprise Institute & Institute for the Study of War (May, 2013).

[11] Phillips, Wendell. Unknown Oman (David McKay Co., Inc. New York, 1966): p. 19.

[12] Bodetti, Austin. “Oman strives for neutrality in the Middle East,” YaleGlobal Online (Jan. 7, 2020).

[13] Van Wilgenburg, Wladimir. “Iran wants Syrian Kurds to depend on Damascus: Experts,” Kurdistan24 (Dec. 31, 2018).

[14] Sakelaris, Nicholas. “Saudi Prince bin Salman accepts responsibility but not blame for Khashoggi death,” UPI News (Sept. 26, 2019).

[15] Kirkpatrick, David D. & Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Saudis called Khashoggi ‘Sacrificial Animal’ as they waited to kill him,” The New York Times (June 19, 2019).

[16] Kheel, Rebecca. “Overnight Defense: House votes to block Trump arms sales to Saudis, setting up likely veto,” the Hill (July 17, 2019).

[17] Goldberg, Jeffrey. “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April, 2016).

[18] Piotr, Pietrzak. “The U.S. Foreign Policy towards Syria under the Donald Trump Administration,” Academia (Research Gate Net: 2016): 2.

[19] Rutland, Peter. “Trump, Putin, and the Future of US-Russian Relations”, Slavic Review Vol 76 (S1) (Cambridge Univ. Press, Aug. 1, 2017): 42-43.

[20] Friedman, Uri. “What America’s Allies really think about Trump’s Syria Decision,” The Atlantic (Nov. 14, 2019).

[21] Ward, Alex. “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”: Read Trump’s wild letter to Turkey’s Erdogan,” Vox (Oct. 16, 2019).

[22] Hubbard, Ben et al. “In Syria, Russia is pleased to fill an American Void,” The New York Times (upt. Oct. 17, 2019).

[23] Abdi, Mazloum. “If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people,” Foreign Policy (Oct. 13, 2019).

[24] “Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey and Russia on northern Syria,” The Defense Post (Oct. 22, 2019).

[25] Feaver, Peter & Inboden, Will. “The realists are wrong about Syria,” Foreign Policy (Nov. 4, 2019).

[26] Borger, Julian. “Trump and Syria: the worst week for US foreign policy since the Iraq invasion?” The Guardian (Oct. 14, 2019).

[27] Feaver, Peter & Inboden, Will. “The realists are wrong about Syria,” Foreign Policy (Nov. 4, 2019).

[28] Brown, Frances Z. “Why Trump’s shapeshifting Syria policy worked- Until it didn’t. The limits of Strategic Ambiguity,” Foreign Affairs (Nov. 13, 2019).

[29] “Qasem Soleimani: US kills top Iranian general in Baghdad air strike,” BBC News (Jan. 3, 2020).

[30] Tenreiro, Daniel. “The Killing of Soleimani was not an ‘assassination’,” National Review (Jan. 10, 2020).

[31] Gearan, Anne; Rucker, Philip and Dawsey, Josh. “Trumps threatens Iran after embassy attack, but remains reluctant to get more involved in region.” The Washington Post (Dec. 31, 2019).

[32] “US deploys 750 troops to Middle East after Baghdad embassy attack.” Aljazeera News (Jan. 1, 2020).                                 

[33] Fulton, Will; Holliday, Joseph and Wyer, Sam. “Iranian Strategy in Syria,” A joint report by the American Enterprise Institute & Institute for the Study of War (May, 2013): 10-11.

[34] Melamedov, Grigory. “Russia’s entrenchment in Syria-Moscow’s Middle East Resurgence.” Middle East Quarterly (Winter, 2018): Moving the goal posts.

[35] Managan, Dan. “Years before killing Qassem Soleimani, Trump warned Obama would start a war with Iran to get reelected,” CNBC (Jan. 3, 2020).

[36] Roblin, Sebastien. “Turkey threatens to buy Russian Su-35 jets if it can’t get F-35 stealth fighters,” National Interest (Nov. 9, 2019).

[37] Fassihi, Farnaz et al. “Ukraine plane shot down because of human error, Iran says: Live updates,” The New York Times (Jan. 11, 2020).

[38] Smith, Patrick et al. “Iran denies it fired a missile to down Ukrainian jet, calls for evidence,” NBC News (Jan. 10, 2020).

[39] Melamedov, Grigory. “Russia’s entrenchment in Syria-Moscow’s Middle East Resurgence.” Middle East Quarterly (Winter, 2018): “war inside the war.”

[40] “Netanyahu, Putin to meet as Russia condemns annexation plans,” Aljazeera (Sept. 12, 2019).  

[41] Wildangel, Rene. “Clumsy but useful? The German defense minister’s initiative for northern Syria,” European Council on Foreign Relations (Oct. 29, 2019).

[42] “Remarks by the h High Rep./Vice-Pr. Federica Mogherini at the Ministerial Meeting of the UN Groups of Friends of Mediation,” European Union External Action (Sept. 26, 2019).

References

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