Liddick: Middle East cauldron boils over (column)
April 9, 2018
Anyone keeping an eye on the Middle East? I hope so, because despite the media's current attack of the vapors over a trade war with China in which we have yet to take any action, the real area of instability remains the arc of chaos running from Aleppo to Basra and beyond.
I'm not referring only to Saturday's chemical attack by the Syrian regime on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, but that's part of it. Bashar the Butcher's brutal disregard for the modern principles of conflict is doubtless reinforced by his Russian and Iranian backers being entrenched in Syria in force; the danger both to Syria and others is that the slaughter will not remain localized for a hundred reasons, none of them good.
There is now a Kurdish proto-state in northern and northeastern Syria. It has a flag, a constitution, national assembly and a considerable military arm. Its politics are socialist, a contrast with the other Kurdish polity in the area, the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Northern Iraq, a de-facto state since 2003.
Both of these regions, but especially the former, are problematic for regional heavyweight Turkey, whose on-again, off-again conflict with the "People's Defense Forces" of the communist Kurdistan Workers' Party has been going on for decades. This low-intensity conflict has involved terrorist attacks inside Turkey and military responses including bombing raids and armed incursions into both Syria and Iraq by Turkey. Following a series of Turkish actions against Kurdish troops attempting to relieve the ISIL siege of Kobani in 2015, there were riots in ethnic Kurdish regions of Turkey, and the conflict heated up yet again. Early this year, Turkish forces invaded northern Syria to attack Kurdish strongpoints there.
What is not a little sad here is that Turkey could have been a real asset in the ongoing "Shi'ite crescent" crisis, instead of a complicating factor. A succession of Turkish governments stretching back to the 1980s have not been fond of the Assad family; when approached for support as part of a coalition to calm Syria in the early days of the abortive "Arab Spring" demonstrations against the Alawite government, they had one stipulation: the Assads had to go. Shocked at the suggestion that the US would acquiesce to regime change in Damascus, the Obama administration demurred, with results we know.
Using Syria as an entry point, the Russians are back in the Middle East. They have long cozied up to the Mullahs in Tehran, whose reach they have helped extend to the shores of the Mediterranean. And they have been making overtures to Turkey, in whose authoritarian president, Recip Tayip Erdogan, Putin may see a kindred spirit, or at least a useful tool. Mr. Erdogan, an Islamist and neo-Ottoman, has been the center of political power in Turkey since 2003. He is dubious about the West and its influence in Turkey's backyard. And he has pretentions about his country once again becoming the region's hegemon.
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Which maybe a complicating factor in Russia's relationship with the other regional power wannabe, Iran — with which Turkey has had a contentious relationship for centuries. But since divide-and-conquer has been a staple of Russian foreign policy toward Muslim polities for an equally long period, this should be cake for a master manipulator like Vlad the Terrible.
Then there are wild cards: not only tribal conflicts in failed states — Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan come to mind — but established states with new leadership, like Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin 'Abd ul-Aziz is a complicated reformer with a vision of his country at the forefront of technological development. He is seeking to move his country away from its Siamese siblinghood with the most conservative of Sunni Islamic movements; time will tell. But his vision of progress has introduced instability into a society which loathes it, and the history of the two previous Saudi states has not been kind to rulers who were not children of the founder — as he would not be.
More problematic is his vision of Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Shi'ism, at least partially responsible for the kingdom's military adventure against Shi'ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. This is probably also what prompted him to say that, should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would follow suit. Undoubtedly they would accomplish the task in the usual Saudi way of contracting-out — probably to Pakistan, a country with a competent nuclear program and few historical qualms about sharing. The result would be two nuclear-armed states with radically opposed views, at least partially informed by a millenialist vision, glowering at each other across the Persian (or Arab) Gulf.
Is anyone watching the Middle East? I sure hope so. It shows a lot of potential to go sideways fast. With ugly consequences for all and sundry, including us.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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