Kurdish Referendum: What is the Lowdown?

Despite many efforts to stop or postpone it, the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum has become a fait accompli and must be taken into account in shaping future developments, and Masoud Barzani, the man who orchestrated the exercise, must be as pleased as Punch.

In contemplating the future, it is important to know exactly what we are talking about. Supporters of the referendum have pinned their flag to two concepts: independence and self-determination.

They say Iraqi Kurds want independence. However, like all other Iraqis, Iraqi Kurds already live in a country that is recognized as independent and a full-member of the United Nations.

The concept of the quest for independence applies to lands that are part of a foreign empire or turned into “possession” of a colonial power. Legally speaking, at least since 1932, that has not been the case in Iraq. If, Iraq isn’t independent, then we must assume that Kak Masoud, rather than being a prominent leader contributing to the development of Iraq’s new but fragile democratic process, is a satrap for an unknown empire or an agent for a mysterious colonial power. But Kak Masoud isn’t a satrap precisely because his country, Iraq, is independent.

Then we come to the concept of self-determination which is recognized as a right under international law. It was first developed in the wake of the First World War and the beak up of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. The idea was that people in the component parts of those empires should determine their own future, especially by deciding whether or not to form states of their own. The Wilson Doctrine and the so-called Briand-Kellogg Pact (between France and the US) further refined the concept.

Later, in the wake of the Second World War the concept was used to provide a legal framework for decolonization as British, French and Dutch Empires broke up. In the past 100 years, thanks to the concept of self-determination, over 120 new independent countries have appeared on the global map.

Self-determination was established as the right of all peoples to choose their own governments and pass their own laws rather than be subject to distant foreign rulers and lawmakers.

Seen in that light, Iraqi Kurds already enjoy self-determination because they choose their own local and national governments and lawmakers.

The first thing to understand is that the recent referendum was about independence and self-determination is bogus, to say the least. Used to hoodwink public opinion could lead to dangerous complications in the future.

So, what was the referendum really about? It was about secession which is not the same thing as self-determination or independence. Its organizers want to detach the areas where Kurds form a majority and set up a new separate state.

However, while self-determination is universally recognized as a right, secession is not.

Secession is an option, not a right. At best, it could be regarded as a desire and, at worst, a folly.

But seeking secession, though unlawful in both national and international law, isn’t a crime. Also, it has little to do with the degree of democratic development of societies. The United Kingdom is a well-established democracy but still faces secessionism on the part of large number of Scots. There are secessionists in several other democracies: the Quebecois in Canada, the Corsicans in France, the Basques and the Catalans in Spain, the Frisians in Denmark, the Kashmiris in India and even Porto Allergens in Brazil.

The important thing is that in all those cases, parties that support secession say so openly, seldom trying to disguise their ambition as a quest for self-determination and independence.

So, the first thing that Kak Massoud should do is to stop doing taiqyeh, call a spade a spade, and openly admit that what he is seeking is secession.

He should say that his aim is to break up Iraq, which is a multi-ethnic republic, in order to create a mono-ethnic Kurdish state. Interestingly, the word Iraq, which means “lowland”, is a geographic term with no ethnic connotations. Iraqi citizenship is a civic concept, transcending ethnic, religious and racial identities.

Many countries in the world are named after their majority ethnic component. In our region Turkey is the land of the Turks and Armenia the land of Armenians. All the “stan” countries refer to ethnic majorities there. Beyond the Middle East, all but 12 of the European states are also named after ethnic components: Germany is the land of Germans and Russia the land of Russians.

However, none of the Middle Eastern countries that emerged from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire are labeled with ethnic identities. They are known under historic and/or geographic names and regard the presence of various ethnic and/or religious communities within their borders as a given. Even Israel, though a special case for obvious reasons, fits into that pattern if only because 27 per cent of its citizens are not Jews. They are Israelis but not Israelites.

The Middle East has been the sphere of multi-ethnic empires for some 25 centuries: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Byzantines, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottomans etc. So, the Kurdish state that Kak Massoud wishes to create would be the first over 2000 years in the Middle East to claim a purely ethnic identity.

Let’s give an example of the difference between independence, which is the right of all peoples under foreign colonial or imperial rule, and secession. Morocco and Tunisia were both under the domination of the French Empire in the name of colonial protection. In the 1950s they exercised their right of self-determination and obtained their independence without a minimum of hassle. Algeria, on the other hand, was regarded as two provinces of the French Republic itself, elected its own members of parliament and enjoyed full French citizenship rights.

Thus, its demand for independence was regarded as secession and could only be granted with the agreements of the French state, later ratified in a national referendum throughout France. But before that happened, Algerians had to fight a 5-year war, with perhaps half a million dead, and go through a two-year negotiating period.

Other states have treated secession in different ways.

Canada and the United Kingdom have organized referendums in Quebec and Scotland giving the local populations a chance to reject secession. In Czechoslovakia and between Malaysia and Singapore, secession came through negotiations producing divorce by consent. In the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, secession was organized by Great Britain as the colonial power. South Sudan’s secession was ratified by the Khartoum government after 20 years of war and six years of negotiations.

The international community recognizes the outcome of any secession only if it is achieved with the consent of the country concerned. Montenegro seceded from Serbia through negotiations and was immediately admitted into the United Nations. Kosovo also seceded but without consent and still remains in a limbo, rejected by the UN and recognized by only a handful of nations.

Holding referendums does not automatically bestow legitimacy on secessionist programs. Russia has held referendum in Crimea, which it snatched from Ukraine, and in South Ossetia and Abkhazia which it took from Georgia. However, no other country recognizes those secessions.

The reason is that there is no mechanism in domestic or international law to recognize non-consensual secession. The International Court of Justice at The Hague made that clear by refusing to certify Kosovo’s independence. In Canada the High Court has ruled against Quebec secession and in France Corsican secessionist demands have been thrown out by courts. In Iraq, the Constitution, drafted with the full and enthusiastic participation of Masoud, excludes unilateral secession in articles 107 and 116 and 13.

Finally, secession does not feature in the programs of any of the dozen or so parties active among Kurds who live in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. So the next step that Masoud must take is to enshrine secession in his party’s charter and manifesto for the next Iraqi general election in 2018. If he does that and obtains mandate to seek secession he could then demand that the central government in Baghdad enter into negotiations on the issue of secession.

In other words, any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence could lead only to impasse, a deadly impasse.

Khamenei Orders New Supervisory Body to Curtail Government

London- In a move designed to further curtail President Hassan Rouhani’s scope for policy-making, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has ordered the creation of a new supervisory body to “hold all branches of government to account in the implementation of their policies.”

Khamenei unveiled his plan at a special meeting Thursday in Tehran of the Assembly of Experts, a 92-member outfit initially formed to surprise the performance of the “Supreme Guide” himself. However, in a lengthy speech Khamenei made no mention of that task which is enshrined in the very Constitution of the Iranian Republic.

Instead, he said the Assembly must “assume grand supervisory mission designed to ensure the direction and progress of the Islamic revolution.”

“The three branches of government are in charge of administering the country in a revolutionary manner,” Khamenei said. “But the Assembly of Experts must supervise the branches to make sure they move in the direction set by the revolution, and to hold to account when there is a lacunae.”

Split between a vision of Iran as a vehicle for Khomeinist revolution on the one hand and an ordinary nation-state on the other, the Iranian Republic has faced deep contradictions from the very beginning. For radical elements the risk in seeing Iran normalize itself and start behaving like a nation-state is almost as great as that of “foreign plots for regime change.”

The current Constitution is already designed to limit the powers of the official government represented by a President and a Council of Ministers. This is done through three existing organs.

The first such organ is the Council of the Ascertainment of the Interests of the System (Majlis Tashkhis Maslehat al-Nizam). This Majlis is supposed to arbitrate disagreements between the President and his Cabinet on the one hand and the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, on the other.

Worse still, as far as the official government is concerned, in 2015 Khamenei extended the powers of the Majlis al-Maslehat by ordering it to work out 20-year plans for all key aspects of national policy. In other words, whoever forms the government at any given time would not have to freedom to work out any policy unless it fully conforms with the plans already fixed.

Since all members of the Majlis al-Maslehat are appointed by the “Supreme Guide” it is safe to assume that it is ultimately his view that would prevail.

The second control organ is Guardians of the Constitution which could veto any government decision even if approved by the Parliament.

Again, Khamenei’s control over the Guardians Council is almost total. He directly appoints six of the 12 members but would also have to approve the six others named by the Parliament.

The new organ decreed by Khamenei is to be composed of “a team of thinkers”.

It is not clear whether the “thinkers” in question will be members of the Assembly of Experts or recruited from other fields. But since the nominees would have to be approved by Khamenei, it is clear that the new proposed organ will add a third layer to the control already exercised by the “Supreme Guide.”

Even then, the “Supreme Guide” is not satisfied with formal control over the official government which he clearly does not fully trust. His fear is that the President and his Council of Ministers, although appointed with the approval of the “Supreme Guide”, may be tempted to sacrifice the interests of the evolution in order to protect the interests of the nation-state.

This is why some “sensitive areas” are kept outside the remit of the President and the Council of Ministers from the start. For example, Iran’s regional policy is directly controlled by the office of the “Supreme Guide” known as “Beit rahbar” (Leader’s Household) with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ task limited to protocol and ceremonial occasions. All of Iran’s ambassadors to Arab countries, for example, are chosen by the Quds Corps, the organ charged with the task of “exporting the revolution” and directly accountable to the “Supreme Guide.”

The Iran policy adopted by former US President Barack Obama was partly responsible for Khamenei’s decision to reduce the power of the official government and increase that of revolutionary organs under his control. Obama publicly spoke of “supporting moderate elements” in what he thought would be a “change of direction in Iran.”

With US policy apparently now moving in the direction opposite to that set by Obama, Khamenei is anxious to consolidate the position of his revolutionary organs before another US administration is tempted by a new version of Obama’s love-affairs with “Tehran moderates.”

Two events dramatically illustrated Khamenei’s decision to clip the wings of Rouhani’s “moderate” administration.

The first was Khamenei’s four-hour long tete-a-tete with Russian President Vladimir Putin from which Rouhani was excluded. Since then, Iran’s Russia policy, dubbed by Khamenei as “Looking to the East” is handled by the office of the “Supreme Guide” with such emissaries as Quds Corps Commander General Qassem Soleimani and Khamenei adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati running errands to Moscow instead of the official Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

The second event was the historic visit to Ankara by the newly appointed Chief of Staff General Muhammad Baqeri establishing direct contact between the military of the Iranian Republic and that of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Once again, the official government played no role in the dramatic event. Since then, General Baqeri has also established direct contact with the top brass of the Pakistan Armed Forces, once again by-passing the Cabinet nominally headed by Rouhani.

The decision to test a new ballistic missile, named Khorramshahr, jut 48 hours after Rouhani’s return from New York, was equally noteworthy. In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Rouhani had sounded moderate and conciliatory and ready to comply with Iran’s obligations under UN resolutions, the most recent one of which forbids such missile tests. Khorramshahr was designed to tell the world that what matters is not what Iran promises as a country but what Iran does as a revolution.

Khamenei’s message is clear: Iran must be in the service of its Revolution, not the other way round.

The Kurdish Referendum Imbroglio

Kurdish people attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk

What is the first thing you should do when you have dug yourself into a hole?
The obvious answer is: stop digging. This is the advice that those involved in the imbroglio over the so-called independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, due to be held next Monday. But still in the suspense of writing this column, would do well to heed.

The idea of holding a referendum on so contentious an issue at this time is bizarre, to say the least. There was no popular demand for it. Nor could those who proposed it show which one of Iraq’s problems such a move might solve at this moment. In other words, the move was unnecessary, in the sense that Talleyrand meant when he said that, in politics, doing what is not necessary is worse than making a mistake.

If by independence one means the paraphernalia of statehood, the three provinces that form the Iraqi Kurdistan lack nothing: They have their president, prime minister, Cabinet, parliament, army, police, and, even, virtual embassies in key foreign capitals. They are also well furnished with symbols of statehood including a flag and national anthem.

Having said all that, one could hardly deny the Kurds a desire for independence.

In a sense, some Kurds have dreamt of an independent state for over 2000 years when the Greek historian Xenophon ran into them in the mountains of Western Asia. (See his account in his masterpiece Anabasis).

Right now, however, all indications are that any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence by the Kurds could trigger a tsunami of conflicts that the region, already mired in crisis, might not be able to handle. In other words, the hole dug by Erbil may become an ever-deepening black hole sucking a bigger chunk of the Middle East into the unknown; hence the need to stop digging.

Yet, almost everyone is doing the opposite.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous government has lashed out against Turkey and Iran while threatening military action to seize disputed areas in Iraq. Barzani’s tough talk may please his base but could strengthen chauvinist elements in Bagdad, Ankara and Tehran who have always regarded Kurds as the enemy.

For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has come close to threatening the use of force to stop a process that remains unclear.

Threats have also come from Tehran, where National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani says the Islamic Republic would cancel all security accords concerning the Kurdish region and might intervene there militarily to deal with anti-Iran groups.

For its part, Ankara has branded the referendum a “red line”, using a discredited term made fashionable by former US President Barack Obama in 2014 over Syria.

Just days before the referendum, the Turkish army staged a highly publicized military demonstration on the border with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, presumably as a warning to Erbil.

As for Russia, the sotto voce support given to the referendum is more motivated by hopes of juicy oil contracts than sober geostrategic considerations. Such a stance might win President Vladimir Putin more support from the oligarchs but risks dragging Russia into a risky process over which it won’t have any control.

Washington’s mealy-mouthed comments on the issue are equally problematic.

Iraqi Kurds have been the United States’ best allies in dismantling the Saddamite system in post-liberation Iraq and the current fight against ISIS. The US would gain nothing by casting itself as an opponent of Kurdish self-determination.

Tackling the problem from a legal angle, Iraq’s Supreme Court has declared the proposed referendum in violation of the Iraqi Constitution. For its part the National Parliament has invited the Erbil leadership to postpone the referendum, echoing a message from the United States and the European Union.

It is not clear where all this talk of canceling the referendum at the 11th hour may lead. However, I think cancellation at this time could do more harm than good.

First, it could discredit the Erbil leadership at a time it needs to prop up its authority, indeed its legitimacy. Whether one likes the Erbil leadership or not, sapping its authority is neither in the interest of Iraqi Kurds nor, indeed, of Iraq as a whole. Encouraging splits in the Kurdish ranks and promoting a political vacuum in the autonomous region is the last thing Iraq needs.

Secondly, last minute cancellation could strengthen elements who still believe that force and threat of force are the most efficient means of dealing with political problems. Almost 14 years after the demise of Saddam Hussein, Iraq isn’t yet free of past demons who dream of a monochrome Iraq dominated by a clique.

Thirdly, a last-minute cancellation could be seen as a legitimization of the right of Ankara and Tehran to intervene in Iraqi domestic affairs through a mixture of military pressure and thinly disguised blackmail.

So, what is the best way to stop deepening the hole?

A possible answer may be built around the position taken by Iraqi President Fouad Maasoum, himself an ethnic Kurd but, apparently at least, genuinely committed to building a pluralist system in Iraq. Maasoum has not offered an elaborate scheme. But his suggestion that the imbroglio be tackled through talks between Baghdad and Erbil could be used as the basis for a compromise.

In such a compromise the referendum would go ahead unhindered while it is made clear that its outcome would in no way be legally binding on anyone. In other words, the referendum, whatever its result, would be accepted as a political fact that could and should be taken into consideration in designing the road-map Iraq would need once it has wiped out ISIS.

Iraqi Kurds cannot impose their wishes by force, especially when they are far from united over national strategy. On the other hand, Iraq cannot revert to methods of dealing with its “Kurdish problem” that led to so many tragedies for the Kurds and derailed Iraqi national life for decades.

Next Monday’s referendum was unnecessary. The best one could do at the 11th hour is to help morph it into a mistake. Politics cannot deal with the unnecessary, but it can deal with mistakes.

Dealing With Iran, Trump Has Many Options


A year ago, the annual General Assembly of the United Nations in New York was the setting for what looked like an Irano-American love-fest as the two erstwhile foes multiplied gestures of sweetness towards each other.

The key symbol of their affection was what they called Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA), a 176-page list of desiderata linked to the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program.

This year, however, the old demons were back as the United States’ new President Donald Trump described the Islamic Republic in Tehran as “a criminal regime” bent on exporting terrorism. His Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani returned the compliment by labeling Trump a “rogue politician.” Once again, the CJPOA, or Plan, in short, was the point of reference for both. Trump vowed to scrap it while Rouhani almost upgraded it to the status of a sacred untouchable text.

“We shall not accept any change in the text of the Plan,” Rouhani told whoever cared to listen in New York.
Despite the Mch-2 rhetoric on both sides, one thing is certain: as far as the Plan is concerned the status quo is so destabilized that trying to maintain it might prove futile if not dangerous.

Trump cannot swallow his incendiary words and tell his people that he has decided to stick to the Plan after all. For their part, Tehran’s mullahs cannot denounce the Plan, the fig leaf that covers the nakedness of their foreign policy or to force the US to continue the charade started by former President Barack Obama.

For both sides, the key problem is that the Plan is not a legally binding document. Neither a treaty nor an agreement, the Plan was negotiated by an ad-hoc group called 5+1 with no legal existence and a team of Islamic Republic diplomats with no clear legal mandate.

It has not been ratified by any national parliament or international authority. A resolution passed by the Islamic Majlis in Tehran refers to it obliquely only to reject its key features. The UN Security Council Resolution 2231 “endorses” the Plan and stipulates a suspension of sanctions decided in six previous resolutions.

However, the resolution does not make it clear which of the many versions of the Plan it endorses. The Islamic Foreign Ministry has provided at least three versions in Persian and the US State Department two in English.

Because the Plan isn’t a treaty or a classical international agreement it has no mechanism for amendment let alone abrogation. This means that no one, including President Trump, can abrogate a non-existent treaty.
So, what can Trump do?

Under a deal made between Obama and the US Congress, the US President is authorized to suspend some sanctions against the Islamic Republic for periods of 90 to 180 days, each time certifying to the Congress that Iran has fulfilled its obligations under the Plan.

So far, Trump has issued the certifications on a regular basis. He could, of course, decide not to issue further certifications. In that case, he would have to provide justification for his decision within 10 days, providing evidence that Iran has reneged on its obligations under the Plan.

If the Congress accepts the evidence provided the whole issue will revert to Congressional authority. That may seem attractive from Trump’s point of view because he would wash his hands off a thorny issue, but entails the risk of fudging the whole matter in a quagmire of Congressional partisan politics.

With relations between the White House and the Republican Party strained, to say the least, there is no guarantee that the Trump administration would master enough support in the Congress to promote an entirely new approach to the “Iran problem.”

The best option for Trump, therefore, would be to continue signing regular certifications while keeping the suspense about the future of the Plan. Such suspense has already prevented major international banks and corporations from normalizing relations with Iran let alone providing it with the massive injection of capital and technology it needs to avoid economic meltdown.

Uncertainty about what the US might do about Iran has been the most effective weapon Washington has in its efforts to curb the mullah’s ambitions.

At some point, that uncertainty may prove too hard to bear for mullahs, now under fire inside Iran for the failure of the Plan to provide any of its promised fruits. In such circumstances, the mullahs may be forced to denounce the Plan, if only to save face. And that would save Washington the trouble of picking a quarrel with European allies and Russia over a Plan rejected by Iran itself.

Another option that Trump has is to ratchet up measures taken against the Islamic Republic in relation to other problems, including violations of human rights, exporting terrorism, seizure of foreign hostages, notably US citizens, Tehran development of ballistic missiles, and direct or indirect military intervention in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Measures based on such concerns may well even attract support not only from the European allies but on a broader international scale. Almost all the sanctions suspended under the Plan could be refigured and re-launched through new legislation related to other areas of conflict with the mullahs.

Such action could be complemented with a more energetic application of measures already envisaged under seven UN resolutions, including stop and search operations aimed to prevent the import by Iran of dual-use material and technology.

A brochette of measures known in diplomatic parlance as “proximity pressure” could further complement such actions, making life more difficult for the Islamic Republic.

Finally, there is the option suggested by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian: launching a new process of negotiations to amend and extend the Plan and, maybe, even morph it into a proper legal agreement.
Such a process could have three aims.

First, it would remove the so-called “sunset” clauses under which some of the measures against the Islamic Republic will automatically expire in 2025. Under the existing Plan, the mullahs have ceded large chunks of Iranian sovereignty, especially with reference to the nation’s industrial and trade policies, to the 5+1 group until 2025.

Secondly, the French idea is to extend that ceding of sovereignty beyond that limit, in fact making it permanent by putting Iran under 5+1 tutelage.

The French scheme also envisages the extension of the existing Plan to other areas of interest by committing Tehran to specific measures regarding its regional policies and, in time, even its domestic politics.
In other words, why not a CJPOA number 2 on human rights and another CJPA number 3 on the Islamic Republic’s economic system?

Finally, at some point one could envisage a CJPOA on military matters, bringing Iran into the international fold through semi-official dialogue with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The first such contact, established earlier this month by Iran at the highest level of its military with Turkey is seen as a promising development.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the American analysis under Trump and the European one promoted by the new French President Emmanuel Macron.

Key members of the Trump administration believe that the Islamic Republic, lacking mechanism for reform, change within the regime is not possible.

That leaves the choice between accepting the Islamic Republic warts and all and trying to bring about regime change.

According to the European analysis, however, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei’s rule has entered its final “natural phase” providing a potential for “evolution” led by “moderate elements” anxious to adopt the “Chinese model” or repression at home and accommodation with the Western powers.

A coalition of moderate mullahs and modernizing military figures could discard the North Korean model, favored by Khamenei, and nudge Iran toward reconciliation with the outside world.

President Trump has promised to let us know soon what he has decided. His unorthodox UN speech, however, has already ignited a new phase in the debate inside Iran between “Islamic North Koreans” and “Islamic Chinese” ideologues. Not a bad picking for a single speech.

Why Iran’s Plan in Syria Will Fail


For the past week or so, Iranian official media and social networks have been abuzz with anecdotes woven around a football match in Tehran between Iran and Syria and the light it might shed on a complicated relationship.

According to most accounts, a group of Syrians flown in by special charter to cheer their national squad in its bid for a place in the World Cup in Moscow staged an anti-Iran demonstration in the stadium. The Syrian contingent included young ladies who refused to wear the Iranian-style hijab.

Their presence in the stadium highlighted the fact that no Iranian woman is allowed to attend a football match after a fatwa by the “Supreme Guide” that women watching young men running around with bare legs might cause “undue excitement”

In any case, the Syrian fans seized the opportunity to unleash a torrent of venom against Iran and Iranians. If videos posted on the web is a clue, the Syrians used words and expressions that are not fit to print. That, in turn, provoked an equally abusive torrent from Iranians on social media.

The incident also prompted a debate over Iran’s role in the Syrian tragedy.

“What are we doing there?” was a question repeatedly posed.

The initial answer provided by the Khomeinist authorities was that Iran is fighting in Syria to prevent the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime which had been an ally during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s and now a member of the Resistance Front led by Iran.

That answer, however, failed to convince many people, even within the regime’s base.

Then another reason was cited: Iran was fighting in Syria to prevent the destruction of Shiite holy shrines. Official media published lists of such shrines, sometimes with photos.

But that, too, was challenged by “troublemakers” who pick holes in the regime’s shaky claims. More than 90 per cent of Syrian “Shiite holy sites” turned out to be burial places of ancient Jewish prophets or Sunni Muslim theologians and scholars.

The latest and current justification cited by the regime for Iran’s role in Syria, which means helping President Assad kill more Syrians, is that the Islamic Republic needs a secure land access to the Lebanese border where, thanks to Hezbollah, it sets the agenda.

The Syrian part of that dream corridor, which must also pass through a long sliver of Iraqi territory, skirts the fertile plains to the south of Damascus. Hence the idea of a deal with Turkey with Russia’s blessing. Under the deal, Iran will station troops in a “de-escalation zone” south of Damascus while Turkey seizes control of a chunk of Syrian territory in Idlib.

The putative deal is supposed to receive an official façade during talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, under the auspices of the United Nations.

If put into practice, the Russian “de-escalation” project will freeze the division of Syria into five segments, with Russia, Turkey, Iran dominating three, and the US and its Kurdish and Arab allies present in the remaining two. The Russian scheme may end, or at least tone down, the fighting for a while but risks leading to the destruction of Syria as a unified nation-state.

However, a closer look at Syrian realities might show that the Russo-Irano-Turkish scheme is doomed to fail. From what I know of Syria, a country I have observed and visited wince 1970, despite almost seven years of tragedy, the sense of “Syrian-ness” is still strong enough to frustrate putative imperial appetites.

In that context, Iran has even less chance of succeeding than Turkey or Russia.

In Idlib, Turkey has the advantage of territorial contiguity with Syria, a fact that facilitates logistics and permits significant military intervention to pursue political ambitions.

Also, Turkey has close ties with some elements in Iraqi Kurdistan and could use them to influence at least a segment of Syrians Kurds to accept the “de-escalation zone” as the least bad option. The presence of small groups of Turkmen and Turko-Circassian minorities in the area is an additional boon for Ankara.

Russia is also in a better position than Iran to secure a piece of the Syrian cake.

Thanks to its monopoly of firepower in Syrian air-space Russian air force can be used in support of any design on the ground. Much of the Russian “piece of cake” is in the Mediterranean, easily supplied and defended by Russian naval power. Moreover, a majority of the local population, having adopted an ambiguous posture towards the Assad regime, might prefer Russian domination to domination by Iran.

The Iranian Islamic Republic has none of those advantages.

Syria is not Lebanon where Shiites, accounting for a third of the population, have always looked to Iran as a protector. At different times, notably in the heydays of pan-Arabism under Nasser, Iran, under the Shah, was seen even by Lebanese Christians as a counter-balancing force. Iranian presence and influence in Lebanon date back to the early stages of the Safavid dynasty more than 500 years ago with close family ties, especially among the clergy and traditional business families.

In contrast, Syria has always had a black image in Iranian religious folklore as the base of Ummayads whose caliphate was destroyed by an Iranian revolt led by Abu-Muslim Khorasani. Seen by Iranian mullahs, Damascus is regarded as “Gateway to Hell” because it was there that, according to folklore, the head of Hussein bin Ali, the third Shiite Imam, was presented to the Umayyad Caliph Yazid.

Tehran’s attempts to cast Syrian Alawites as “almost Shiites”, thus deserving” protection” as Lebanese Shiites do, have failed. Not a single Ayatollah has agreed to cancel the countless historic fatwas that castigate Alawites as “heretics” or even crypto-Zoroastrians. This means that, unlike Lebanon where at least part of the Shiite community is sympathetic to Iran under any regime, in Syria today Iran lacks a local popular base.

Iranian general Hussein Hamadani, killed in action in Syria, admitted that much in a revealing interview he granted weeks before his demise. In it he reveals that even supporters of Assad within the Syrian army and Ba’ath Party were hostile to Iranian presence in Syria. “The way we think, the way we live is abhorrent to them,” he said.

In a recent TV interview, Assad indirectly echoed that sentiment: “We look east to Russia,” he said. No mention of Iran. Empire building isn’t easy, especially when you have neither the military power nor the religious and cultural charisma needed to win native support.

Iran is bound to learn that, unfortunately, the hard way.

North Korea: The Kims’ Cheat And Retreat Game


It is too early to guess how the latest storm triggered by North Korea’s behavior might end. Will this lead to a “surgical” strike on North Korean nuclear sites by the United States? Or will it cause “a global catastrophe” as Vladimir Putin, never shy of hyperbole, warns?

If past experience is an indicator the latest crisis is likely to fade away as did the previous six crises triggered by North Korea since the 1970s. Under the Kim dynasty, North Korea, in an established pattern of behavior, has been an irritant for the US, not to mention near and not-so-near neighbors such as South Korea, Japan, and even China and Russia.

By one reading, that pattern, otherwise known as “cheat-and-retreat” could be laughed as a sign of weakness disguised as strength.

However, if only because nuclear weapons are involved, one would have to take the provocation seriously. The Kim dynasty has relied on that ambiguity as part of its survival strategy for decades.

The strategy has worked because the Kims did not overreach, sticking to strict rules of brinkmanship.
Contemplating their situation, the Kims know that they had few good options.

One option is to embark on a genuine path to the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. But in that case, the Kim regime would be doomed. That is what happened to Communist East Germany when it was swallowed by the German Federal Republic.

At 52 million, the population of South Korea is twice that of North Korea. As the world’s 13th largest economy with a Gross National Product of almost $2 trillion, it is also far wealthier than its northern neighbor. South Korea’s annual income per head is close to $40,000 compared to North Korea’s $1700 which makes the land of the Kims poorer than even Yemen and South Sudan, in 213th place out of 220 nations.

The other option is for North Korea to invade the South, to impose unification under its own system. That, too, is not a realistic option. Even without the US “defense umbrella” South Korea is no pushover. Barring nuclear weapons, the South has an arsenal of modern weapons that the North could only dream of. The South could mobilize an army of over 800,000, three times larger than that of the North.

The North, of course, has the advantage of nuclear weapons. But it won’t be easy to use such weapons against the South without contaminating the North as well. Almost 70 per cent of the peninsula’s estimated 80 million people live in less than 15 per cent of its total area of around 200,000 square kilometers which are precisely where nuclear weapons would presumably be used.

In other words, the Kims cannot rule over the whole of the Peninsula either through peaceful means or by force.
The other option the Kims have is to keep quiet and steer clear of provocations.

But that, too, is a high-risk option. For it would mean peaceful coexistence with the South which, in turn, could lead to an exchange of visits and growing trade, and investment by the South. In such a situation the South Korea’s wealth, freedom and seductive lifestyle would be a permanent challenge to the austere lifestyle that the Kims offer.

Again, the East German experience after Willy Brandt launched his Ostpolitik for normalization with the Communist bloc in Europe comes to mind.

But how could the Kims claim legitimacy and persuade North Koreans to ignore the attraction of the model presented by the South?

One way is to wave the banner of independence through the so-called “Self-Reliance” (Juche) doctrine which says that while those in the South have bread those in the North have pride because the South is a “slave house of the Americans” while the North challenges American “hegemony”.

The Kims know that by picking up a quarrel with the US they upgrade their regime. However, such a quarrel must not go beyond certain limits and force the US to hit back.

Thus in every crisis provoked by the Kims since the 1970s, North Korea has never gone beyond certain limits. And each time it has obtained concessions and favors from the US in exchange for cooling down the artificial crisis.

The pattern started under Jimmy Carter and reached its peak under President Bill Clinton who sent his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a pilgrimage to Pyongyang and offered to build two nuclear reactors for the Kims.

One overlooked fact is that during the past four decades the US has helped save North Korea from three major famines.

Upgrading yourself by picking up a quarrel with the US is not an art practiced by the Kims only. The Soviets did it from the 1960s onwards. The Cuban missile crisis was one example; it helped create the image of the USSR as a superpower later symbolized by “summits”.

In the 1960s and early 1970s Communist China, regarding the US as a paper tiger, did the same by occasional attacks on Quemoy and Matsu and saber-rattling against Taiwan.

The Khomeinists in Tehran upgraded their ramshackle regime by raiding the US Embassy in Tehran which kept them on American TV for 444 days.

The Kims’ strategy has worked because successive American administrations have played the role written for them in Pyongyang, pretending outrage but ending up offering concessions.

Clinton had a beautiful analysis: “I ask myself: can I kill these people tomorrow? If, yes, why do it today?”
The Kims have banked on that analysis and have been proven right. Regardless of what North Korea does, the US will not try to do today what it thinks it can do tomorrow.

The Kim-generated crisis also suits China which does not want a united Korea which could become another Japan, an economic powerhouse and a potential military obstacle to Beijing’s regional ambitions.

Russia, too, is happy to see the Kims’ shindig diverting world attention from Putin’s shenanigans while exposing the US as weak and indecisive.

And what if the Kim-scripted crisis also suits President Trump by providing weeks of diversion from other problems?
The Kims didn’t invent governance by the crisis but have proven to be among its most ardent practitioners.

I know journalists aren’t supposed to predict the future. But let us infringe the rule by guessing that the latest Kim-scripted crisis will fizzle out in time for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games (Peyong Chang 2018) next February in South Korea.

Kim has achieved his objective of upgrading his regime and cheated on his nuclear arsenal without suffering serious consequences. He has no interest in pushing things beyond the edge.

Syria: Elections Gambit to Get Russia Off the Hook


In a U-turn that might enter diplomatic annals as among the most bizarre, the United Nations’ special envoy on Syria Staffan di Mistura is forecasting an end of the war and the holding of elections there next year.

In a BBC radio interview yesterday, di Mistura more than implied that the international community must now accept the prolongation of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and the holding of elections by what is left of his administration.

Di Mistura’s new position is in sharp contrast with the analysis he offered last year when he explicitly ruled out “any possibility of holding elections under the present regime.”

Spelling out his new analysis yesterday, di Mistura speculated that the Islamic State will lose its last strongholds in Syria by October, paving the way for “free and fair elections.”

“What we are seeing is, in my opinion, the beginning of the end of this war… what we need to make sure is that this becomes also the beginning of peace. And that is where the challenge starts at this very moment,” he said.

Analysts believe that di Mistura, frustrated by his failure to broker a deal between the rival blocs in this conflict, is trying to inject a bit of “positive mood” into what is a growingly grim picture. Just a few weeks ago, diplomatic circles were abuzz with rumors about di Mistura either being sacked or throwing in the towel.

“His new optimism may be due to some vague promises from Moscow,” says a UN official on condition of anonymity.

“With the Trump administration apparently letting Russia play the lead in this phase of the Syrian drama, di Mistura needs some backing from Russia to get anything done. Russia, in return, demands that the issue of {Bashar} al-Assad’s future be set aside for the time being.”

To cajole di Mistura in line, Moscow seems to have also promised a set of as yet unspecific concessions by the Assad clan in Damascus.

What di Mistura ignores is the fact that Assad and his backers who think they have won the war are in no mood to make any meaningful concessions to their opponents who may represent a majority of the Syrian people.

“Russia and Iran are certainly trying to split the anti-Assad opposition,” says Iranian analyst Nasser Zamani.

“The issue of early elections without a decision on Assad’s fate is likely to cause such a split.”

The so-called Cairo and Moscow opposition groups, believed to have a tacit understanding with at least part of the Assad regime, are likely to welcome the idea of elections in 2018. The main opposition coalition, known as the High Negotiations Committee, however, is likely to reject elections in circumstances in which the Assad regime controls at least 40 per cent of the population.

Di Mistura’s election gambit may, in fact, have little do with the core problems of the Syrian tragedy. It is clear that no serious elections could be held in such a short time and with no transition authority in place.

The dramatic changes in the Syrian demographic composition mean that no credible electoral register could be established without a proper census. By most estimates, at least half of Syria’s population has been transformed into refugees or displaced persons within the country.

Even if some kind of register is worked out, other key issues such as designating constituencies or adopting the system of proportional representation are complex enough to require more time to tackle.

Then there is the problem of who will organize, monitor and ultimately certify any election.

In areas still nominally under his control, Assad has not allowed the United Nations to build a credible presence that could be used as the basis for monitoring elections.

The situation in areas held by the opposition is even worse, as far as the UN’s ability to have an impact is concerned.

More importantly, perhaps, it is not clear what the election will be about and whether it will be fought by individual candidates or coalition of rival parties. As far and Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are concerned, the exercise may simply be used as window-dressing to produce another Third World style majority for the regime.

Elections would be meaningful if the Syrians are offered a real choice of alternatives. And that requires the production of programs that he electorate can compare and judge.

Right now the remnants of the Ba’ath Party, still nominally leading the government in Damascus, is in no position to offer any concrete program beyond obedience to President Assad.

The opposition coalition, however, does have something to offer in the shape of the “transition road-map” approved at a conference in London last year and envisaging the formation of an interim government within six months. The plan implicitly accepts Assad’s continued presence for six months until the transition government is put in place.

It also insists that “war criminals and those charged with crimes against humanity” would not get a role in the transition. However, it stopped short of demanding the dismantling of the current regime’s administrative and military and security structures.

In an indirect attempt at addressing Russian concerns that Assad’s departure might lead to a collapse of the Syrian state and army, as was the case in Iraq in 2003, “the road map” makes it clear that the opposition is looking not “for purges” but for “reforms based on consensus and accommodation”.

Under “the road map”, special committees will review the “present situation” of Syria’s military and security apparatus with a view to restructuring them and re-training their personnel to serve a people-based government rather than a power-based on clannish and narrow ideological considerations.

Although suggestions regarding the federal option are not specifically raised, the “road-map” makes it clear it seeks the preservation of Syria’s largely centralized state structures with a series of reforms aimed at promoting democratization.

The “road map” initially enjoyed di Mistura’s strong backing but is no longer mentioned by him. This maybe because the UN special envoy is trying to find a way for Russia out of the Syrian quagmire rather than paving the way for lasting peace in that war-torn country.

Di Mistura himself has hinted at this. “Even those who believe they won the war – that is the government – they will need to make a gesture, otherwise Daesh will come back in a month or two months’ time,” he said yesterday. “Nobody had an interest in a resurgence of IS in Syria”.

He went on to say that the leadership in Moscow, recalling the Soviet experience of war in Afghanistan, “certainly wants an exit strategy.”

Giving Moscow an exit strategy in Syria cannot come at the expense of the Syrian people who have fought the regime for almost seven years.

The issue of Assad’s future cannot be fudged. If elections are to be held Syrians must be offered a clear choice between a regime that has brought them to grief and an opposition that may offer a less bad alternative.

Khomeini or Kim? Khamenei’s Real Teacher

According to the initial narrative of the Khomeinist ideology, the “perfect state” which Muslims should aspire was the brief period during which Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb exercised the Caliphate against a background of revolts and civil war. However, it now seems that Khomeinist zealots have found another “ideal model” outside the world of Islam.

That model is the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, which Khomeinists present as living paragon of heroic resistance against the American “Great Satan.” The daily Kayhan, believed to reflect the views of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently ran editorials praising North Korea’s “brave defiance of Arrogance” by testing long-range missiles in the face of “cowardly threats” by the United States. In one editorial last month, the paper invited those who urge dialogue with the US to learn from North Korea’s “success in humiliating the Great Satan.”

The editorial provoked some critical responses from the “reformist” wing of the ruling clique with President Hassan Rouhani’s unofficial spokesman expressing regret that Iran was being asked to downgrade to the level of “a pariah in a remote corner of Asia.”

Nevertheless, last month North Korea’s nominal “president” Kim Yong-nam whose official title is Chairman of the People’s Assembly was given red carpet treatment during a 10-day visit to Tehran at the head a 30-man military and political delegation. He was granted a rare two-hours long audience with Khamenei. During his stay, he inaugurated North Korea’s new embassy which includes an expanded military cooperation section.

At first glance, the Khomeinist “republic” and the Kimist regime in Pyongyang seem to have little in common.

The Khomeinists claim legitimacy in the name of the Hidden Imam who is believed to be preparing his return at an unspecified date. The Kimists, on the other hand, base their legitimacy on the “heroic victories” of Kim Il-sung, the proto-Communist leader who, with support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, carved out a fiefdom in part of the Korean Peninsula. Also at first glance, it might appear that the only thing the two regimes share is a primitive version of anti-Americanism, an affliction that affects many others even in Western democracies, albeit in milder forms.

Seen by Khomeinists, who pretend to be sole custodians of “The Only True Religion”, the Kimists, who regard religion as “confused mumbo-jumbo”, must be regarded as adversaries if not outright enemies. And, yet, such is their mutual attraction that the little matter of religion seems to have had no effect on their love fest. The Kimists have even allowed the Khomeinists to set up a mosque in Pyongyang provided they do not try to convert North Koreans.

In the spring of 1979, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the dynasty and grandfather of the present Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, was among the first to congratulate Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini on the seizure of power by mullahs.

A few weeks later, Khomeini, then stationed in Qom, broke his rule of not talking to foreign emissaries by receiving North Korean Ambassador Chabeong Uk for a long session during which the ayatollah dictated a message of friendship to Kim Il-sung, in which, he invited “the masses of Korea” to expel the Americans from the peninsula.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, Kim Il-sung was the first to offer assistance to the Islamic Republic by supplying its version of the Soviet SCUD missiles. In January 1981, invited by Iran, the North Koreans set up a military advisory mission in Tehran to help the newly created Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops (IRGC) develop tactics and strategies in the war against Iraq.

One tactic quickly adopted by the Iranians was the sue of “swarm attacks” by masses of teenagers sent to clear Iraqi minefields at the cost of thousands of lives, a tactic that Kim Il-sung had developed in the Korean War against the Americans.

North Korea became one of only two nations to sign a military pact of sorts, including joint staff conversations, with Iran. (The other is in Syria which signed in 2007.)

Iran’s top contact man with the North Korean military mission was Khamenei then a mid-ranking mullahs operating as Deputy Defense Minister. The new friends started “military cooperation” in 1982 with special emphasis on helping Iran develop a range of missiles.

Getting to know the North Koreans, Khamenei developed a profound admiration for their “discipline and readiness to sacrifice for their struggle”. But it was not until six years later that Khamenei, by that time named President of the Islamic Republic, could express that admiration directly in a state visit to Pyongyang.

According to those who accompanied Khamenei in the visit, the future “Supreme Guide” saw North Korea as the “ideal state” that only lacked religious faith.

“Khamenei was impressed by how everything (in North Korea) worked like the clockwork,” says Hassan Nami, a member of the entourage. “The fact that in North Korea the individual was dissolved in the collective symbolized by the Supreme Leader overwhelmed Khamenei.”

Khamenei’s visit to North Korea, in May 1989, was the first to give him the feeling that he was the rising leader of a rising new power on the world scene. The North Koreans declared a holiday for schools and factories to mobilize a million people to line the streets to greet Khamenei. In a rare gesture, Kim Il-sung himself went to the airport to greet the visitor. The North Korean despot then chaired a special session of the People’s Assembly to hear Khamenei’s speech which included a thinly disguised invitation to Koreans to return to religious belief.

In the end, however, the North Koreans adopted nothing from Khomeinism while Khamenei adopted much of Kim Il-sung’s ideology.

Kim’s “juche” (self-reliance) shibboleth became Khamenei “eqtesad muqawemati” (Resistance Economics). Khamenei also adopted Kim’s reliance on missiles, caused by the fact that North Korean had no access to modern warplanes, as the main plank of his defense doctrine. The revival of the Shah’s nuclear program, scrapped by Khomeini but revived under Khamenei, was also inspired by Kim who believed a weaker nation enhances its position by owning “the ultimate weapon.”

When it comes to Khamenei’s rejection of compromise with domestic or foreign adversaries, again Kim was the teacher.

Kim preached “absolute independence” which meant total disregard for international law, something that Khamenei has made an article of faith for the Islamic Republic.

Going down the list of Khamenei’s beliefs, including his reliance on the military for the survival of the regime, one could see that in many cases the real teacher was Kim Il-sung, not Khomeini.

Book Review: A Grim Portrayal of Syria at War

The Civil War in Syria
By: Nikolas Van Dam
Published by I.B. Tauris, London, 2017

The blurb of this new book on Syria presents the author, Nikolas Van Dam, as an experienced Dutch diplomat with a direct knowledge of the Middle East.

Having served as Holland’s Ambassador to Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, Van Dam also had a stint (in 2015-16) as his country’s Special Envoy for Syria. In that last assignment Van Dam monitored the situation from a base in neighboring Turkey.

Van Dam’s diplomatic background is clear throughout his book as he desperately tries, not always with success, to be fair to “all sides” which means taking no sides, while weaving arguments around the old cliché of “the only way out is through dialogue”.

Thus he is critical of Western democracies, which according to him, deceived the Syrian opposition by making promises to it, including military intervention, which they had no intention of delivering. He is especially critical of former US President Barack Obama who launched the mantra “Assad must go” and set “red line” which the Syrian despot ended up by crossing with impunity.

The first half of the book consists of a fast-paced narrative of Syrian history before the popular uprising started in the spring of 2011. The picture that emerges is that of a Syria in the throes of instability and frequent outburst of violence including sectarian conflict. Van Dam then juxtaposes that with Syria as it was reshaped under President Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970, and his son and successor Bashar al-Assad.

“Under Hafez and Bashar, Syria experienced more internal security and stability than ever before since independence,” Van Dam asserts.

But isn’t Van Dam confusing terror with security and stagnation with stability?

Leaving aside the past six years that, according to Van Dam, have claimed almost half a million Syrian lives, the previous four decades of rule by the two Assads were anything but a model of security and stability. In all those years, Syria lived under Emergency Rules while thousands were imprisoned and or tortured and executed. The absence of genuine security and stability meant that the Ba’athist regime was unable to build the durable institutions of a modern state. That’s why Syrian society at large saw its creative energies stifled, something that none of the previous dictators, from Hosni a-Zaim onwards, had managed or, perhaps, even intended to do.

In other words, contrary to Van Dam’s assertion, the two Assads destroyed chances of Syria building the political, not to mention the ethical, infrastructure of genuine security and stability.

Van Dam tries to portray Syria as a society that had always been ridden by sectarian violence, and frequently refers to “the killing of Alawites” by Arab Sunni Muslims. However, the only example he cites is that of the mass murder of Alawite military cadets in Aleppo which took place during Hafez al-Assad’s rule. The biggest “mass killing” of that epoch was the week-long carnage of unarmed civilians by Assad’s troops in Hama in 1982 which, according to Van Dam, claimed up to 25,000 lives, almost all of them Arab Sunni Muslims.

Those familiar with Syrian history would know that while sectarianism did play a role in almost all events in that unhappy lands it was never the dominant factor.

What Syria experienced, and to some extent is experiencing today, is a war of sectarians not a sectarian war.

The fight today is not between Syrian Sunnis and Alawites and it would be wrong to see the Assad dictatorship as ruled by the Alawite community as such. The fight is between the mass of disenfranchised Syrians of all sects against a despotic regime determined to go to any length to preserve its hold on power, or as we increasingly note, the illusion of power. To that end the Assad regime has focused on dominating the coercive organs of power, the army, the police and at least 15 security organizations, with the appointments of individuals loyal to Assad rather than any particular sect or even the supposedly ruling Ba’ath Party. Van Dam cites estimates of the number of Alawite officers in the Syrian army at around 86 percent. However, the key in that was loyalty to the Assad clan rather than adherence to a religious sect the tenets of which are kept secret even from its followers.

Van Dam estimates support for the Assad regime at around 30 per cent of the Syrian population. This roughly coincides with the percentage of Alawite, Christian, Ismaili and Druze communities in that country. However, to translate the statistics of a census, and even then one based only on estimates, into facts of political support for a regime requires a giant leap of imagination. One might prefer the estimates offered by Sami Khiyami, one of Syria’s most experienced diplomats now in exile, whom Van Dam quotes as well. According to Khiyami the Assad regime and its armed opponents together enjoy the support of no more than 70 per cent of Syrians, the rest disliking, even hating both, for different reasons.

According to Van Dam, the demand advanced by the Syrian opposition and more than 100 countries that Assad must go was a big hurdle on the road to a negotiated end of the conflict. Instead, Van Dam argues, the opposition and its Arab and Western democratic backers ought to have demanded Assad’s cooperation in forging transition. Van Dam may not know this but this is precisely what was attempted in 2012-13 when a Track-II plan under which Assad would “step aside” rather than “step down” was advanced with European and, to some extent, American support. It failed because Assad refused its basic tenets while Obama, even believing that Assad would fall in any case, also withdrew US support.

One may wonder about the book’s title and sub-title. What is happening in Syria is not about “destroying a nation”, nor is Syria likely to be destroyed as a nation. In fact, one may argue that, once the dictatorship is brought down, Syria may emerge from its current ordeal stronger as a nation than ever. The theme of “destruction” is used by Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers as a prop in a campaign of psychological terror to cow the Syrian people into submission. The slogan “Either Assad or We Shall Burn the Country” is openly used by diehard pro-Assad thugs including the Shabbihah.

The description of the conflict in Syria as a “civil war” may also be problematic. From ancient times in Rome, say between Marius and Sula or Caesar and Pompey, the term civil war applied to armed contest over power between two local camps of roughly the same strength at the starting point. This is not the case in Syria where the conflict was initially one between unarmed demonstrations and heavily armed security machine controlled by Assad. The parallel conflict that later developed between anti-Assad armed groups and the remnants of the regime’s army did not morph into a civil war either if only because foreign elements, and powers, became heavily involved on both sides.

Van Dam cites estimates that put the current strength of what is left of Assad’s army at over 65,000. At the same time, General Qassem Soleimani, the man who leads Tehran’s “exporting the revolution” campaign, has just boasted that he has over 60,000 men in Syria, including “volunteers for martyrdom” from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. In other words almost half of those fighting to keep Assad safe in his last hideout in Damascus are not Syrians. At the same time, it is clear that without carpet-bombing by the Russian air force, Assad would have had no chance of making even a symbolic return to such places as Aleppo.

On the armed opposition side, too, foreign intervention is significant. According to Western estimates, more than 30,000 non-Syrians, many of them European passport-holders, are fighting on the side of ISIS, the various militant groups and even Kurdish armed bands in Syria. The financial, political and training support given by more than 50 countries to the Syrian opposition may be “too little, too late”, as Van Dam asserts, but it makes it difficult to underestimate the non-Syrian element of this tragic conflict.

In other words, the proxy aspect of this conflict, something that Van Dam acknowledges, vitiates its descriptions of a classical civil war.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, Van Dam’s book is a welcome contribution to the international debate on the Syrian crisis if only because it offers a glimpse into thinking in European diplomatic circles.

What some of us might find hard to accept is Van Dam’s deep pessimism as to the future of Syria.
He writes: “There is no good future for Syria with Bashar al-Assad in powers, but without al-Assad, future prospects (sic) for Syria do not look promising either.

However, regardless of what happens next the Assad terror machine has been broken and, even with Russian and Iranian support, cannot be restored to its previous strength.

If only for that, “future prospects” need not look so grim. Well. We shall see.

Puffing the Turkish Chibouk in Ankara

When in a recent column, we commented on efforts by NATO powers to establish some contact with the Iranian military we didn’t expect any quick development on that score. However, this is precisely what happened last week when Iran’s new Chief of Staff, General Muhammad-Hussein Baqeri led a 40-man military-political delegation to the Turkish capital Ankara for a three-day official visit which had been the subject of months of intense negotiations between the two neighbors.

The visit was historic for at least four reasons.

To start with this was the first time since the seizure of power by the mullahs in 1979 that an Iranian Chief of Staff was visiting Turkey. Before the mullahs seized power, Iran and Turkey had been allies in the context of three military pacts.

The first, Saadabad Pact, a brainchild of Reza Shah of Iran and Turkey’s first President Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), provided the backbone of relations from the 1920s to the Second World War. The second was the Baghdad Pact which also included Great Britain and Iraq, came to an end in 1958 with the military coup that ended the Iraqi monarchy. The Baghdad Pact was quickly replaced by the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) which, in addition to the UK, also included Pakistan.

Initially, the United States was also slated to join but did not because the Iranian Constitution forbade putting Iranian troops under foreign command, a point on which Washington insisted as a precedent set by NATO. In the end, the US settled for an associate membership of CENTO while, in reality, treating it as a link between NATO and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) which the US also dominated.

CENTO fell apart when Shapour Bakhtiar, who served as the Shah’s last Prime Minister for 27 days, took Iran out of the alliance as a means of pleasing the mullahs leading their revolt in 1978.

The three treaties, Saadabad, Baghdad and CENTO, meant that Iranian and Turkish military could develop wide-ranging and deep relations at all levels. Joint staff conversations were held every six months and hundreds of officers on both sides served in each other’s armies, air force and navy in the context of a massive exchange program.

Thousands of officers on both sides benefited from special classes in Turkish or Persian to extend the space of camaraderie, from high command to platoon levels.

The two nation’s air forces shared the same coordinates, initially established by NATO, and, because they used the same US-made equipment, could simulate joint action against the potential enemy which, at the time, was none other than the Soviet Union. In 1974, during the Cyprus Crisis when the Turkish army invaded northern Cyprus, Iran dispatched several of its latest US-made fighters to Turkey in a symbolic show of support against treats of anti-Turkey action by Greece, another NATO member.

For more than three centuries, that’s to say since the Treaty of Qasr-Shirin (1623-1639), the Ottoman Empire and Iran had lived in peace while both faced the threat of the rising Russian Empire. Even after the fall of the Caliphate in Istanbul, Iran continued to see Turkey as its only safe neighbor.

With the creation of the Khomeinist regime, however, Turkey was suddenly transformed into “the enemy”. It boasted a secular system and insisted on keeping religion out of government, exactly the opposite of what the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the founder of the new Iranian regime, preached.

Worse still, Turkey was a close ally of the American “Great Satan” and provided NATO’s second largest army. While Khomeini was engaged in the mass execution of Iran’s army officers, many officers managed to flee to Turkey where they were sheltered by their former CENTO allies. In 1983, Khomeini ordered the creation of a Turkish branch of Hezbollah to seek the overthrow of the secular republic in Ankara. And when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) lost most of its bases in Syria after the capture of its leader Abdallah Ocalan, the Khomeinist regime offered the Marxist-Secessionist armed group a safe haven in Iranian territory.

Relations between the two neighbors deteriorated to the point that in the 1990s they became engaged in a number of minor border “incidents.”

General Baqeri’s visit seems designed to wipe the slate clean.

The second reason why the general’s visit was historic is that it marks an understanding by both sides that they cannot hope to dominate the Levant region, that is to say Iraq-Syria-Lebanon-Jordan without acknowledging each other’s interests. While the Khomeinist regime seeks space for its so-called revolution, Turkey is trying to forge a glacis to serve its nationals security against armed Kurdish groups that might at one point come together to seek carving out a state of their own in parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

However, concern about Kurdish aspirations isn’t the only cause of concern in Ankara and Tehran. Both are also worried about Russia gaining too much influence by exploiting the current absence of a credible Western presence in the Middle East. Despite tactical alliances with Russia over Syria, to both Turkey and Iraq Russia remains the “near enemy” with a 200-year history of war and aggression.

But the third reason why Gen. Baqeri’s visit to Ankara is historic is that it resumes the Iran-NATO military contact that was severed in 1979. To be sure, this is only an indirect and, for the time being, limited, contact. However, General Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Chief of Staff, is an old NATO hand, having served in various segments of the alliance notably at an intelligence unit in Naples Italy.

Also, the planned meetings at lower levels of the military on both sides is sure to extend and systematize contact, allowing NATO to gain a better direct understanding of the mindset of the Iranian military elite which is emerging as the key player in the country’s post-Khamenei prospects. NATO has had indirect contact with several Khomeinist officers for years, including trough their relatives living in Europe and North America. Now, however, the Turkish link provides an official channel to exchange information and messages.

Finally, Gen. Baqeri’s Ankara mission is historic because it illustrates what some of us have beeb saying for years: the real power in Tehran is in the hands of Khamenei who is increasingly relying on the military, and people playing the roles of President, Minister etc. are often little more than singers of the part given them in the Khomeinist operetta.

As always in history, there is some irony in this case, too. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dismantling the Turkish model in which the military was the backbone of state power, Iran may be adopting a version of that model as symbolized by Gen. Baqeri’s state visit at the head of a massive military-political mission.

The smoke from the chibouk puffed on by Baqeri and Erdogan in Ankara may dance in the air for some time before it assumes a clear shape.