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The Perils of Predicting Events in the Middle East

Prediction is a precise, elusive and dangerous science. We journalists are usually asked to practise this dodgy skill on political anniversaries, elections, before invasions or – even more perilously – during invasions.

Take the city of Afrin. The Turks invaded the Syrian and largely Kurdish province just under two months ago. They took their time. They had few tanks. Their “Free Syrian Army” allies appeared to be nonexistent. Alas, their new found Islamist allies were not.

But when I visited Afrin less than two weeks after the start of Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” – as sinister a name as any in recent decades for armed aggression – its citizens were shopping in crowded streets, their homes unbombed, the restaurants open; I reported that if the Turks really used all their firepower, they could have entered the city in half an hour.

They appeared to be “sheep in sheep’s clothing,” I suggested, quoting Churchill’s description of Clement Attlee. I should have known better. Attlee won the 1945 election. And the Turks entered Afrin city on 18 March.

Well, at least I hadn’t said they wouldn’t capture the place. But back in Damascus this month, an old Syrian friend cheerfully reminded me that when I returned from Afrin in January, I did tell him that I thought the Turks had no intention of entering the provincial capital.

“You said the Turks would not go there,” he admonished me. “What you said about Turkey was right from the start of the war – but this time, you got it wrong.” I fear he was right.

The problem, of course, was that the Kurds, especially the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and its associates, were already famous in song and legend for crushing Isis. How could they destroy so much of this vicious cult, I had asked myself, but then lose to the Turks?

My mistake. I forgot – a real error in the false art of prediction – that the Kurds had not stood their ground against Iraqi forces in Kirkuk. They had largely abandoned their front lines. Which is exactly what they did again in Afrin. But why did the Russians leave the Kurds to their fate?

Well, here are a few reasons. Firstly, the Russians were tired of the Kurds’ decision to act as America’s footsoldiers in Syria as well as Iraq. They had, in the words of my Syrian friend, “put all their eggs in the American basket”.

Secondly, the Russians suspected that the mortar shell which killed one of their most senior officers in Syria – Lieutenant General Valery Asapov, commander of the Russian Fifth Army in the Far East city of Ussuriysk (not far from Vladivostok) – was fired into the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor by Isis, while the Americans were arranging free passage through Isis lines for Kurdish forces en route to Raqqa. Did the Kurds help Isis – they were talking to each other a few weeks earlier – strike a blow at Russia’s military operations in Syria?

More important, however, was an incident in which the Kurds deliberately destroyed a military bridge constructed by the Russians over the Euphrates River for pro-Syrian militias. The Kurds opened the sluice gates on a neighbouring dam and flooded the river – and the bridge collapsed.

Without Russian air cover – and the Turks must also have had Vladimir Putin’s permission to hoist their flag over Afrin’s city hall – the Kurds were doomed. The civilians fled in their tens of thousands, and so did their YPG defenders. No doubt Putin and Erdogan are enjoying their talks in Ankara this week as they confirm the construction of a Turkish-Russian nuclear reactor and a new missile defence shield.

I doubt if they had much time to discuss Afrin – and why should President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who joined them, care about the Kurds? So much for my prediction to my Syrian friend.

But there are some crystal balls which will always reflect the truth. Take Arab elections. Or, more to the point, Egyptian elections. It’s a fair bet that almost any Arab potentate – Saddam in his day, Assad, Sadat or Mubarak – will win a presidential poll by more than 90 per cent.

But, having covered parliamentary and presidential elections in Cairo for more than four decades, I thought I’d have a crack at Field Marshal/President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s victorious results a week before the election was actually held.

Since he picked up more than 96 per cent in previous polls, I reported in The Independent: “I have a hunch it will be somewhere between 93.73 per cent and 97.37 per cent for the President… But my second gamble is a shoo-in. Will President Trump call Mr Sisi after his election victory to congratulate him? Of course he will. And he will call him ‘a great guy’ who’s doing ‘a great job’.”

Well, what do you know? The Egyptian people, with an admittedly miserable turnout and an even more pathetic electoral opponent to Sisi, gave their beloved leader 97 per cent of their votes. The nearest percentage point appeared to be 97.08.

That means I got the result to well within my prediction a week earlier and, without any Egyptian opinion polls to help me, just 0.29 from my own top percentage point. Psephologists must surely stand in awe.

But they must also forget that Mubarak won 96.3 per cent for his third six-year term in office in 1993, that Sadat won a thumping 99.95 victory for political reform in a 1974 referendum and Saddam scored 99.96 for his presidency in 1993. Hafez al-Assad, however, picked up 99.987 per cent of the Syrian vote for a new seven-year term in office in 1999. Only 219 erring citizens voted against him.

So if you spend your time reporting this stuff, you can predict the future with considerable accuracy. And after Trump’s congratulatory call to Tsar Putin after his election, it was also inevitable that the wretched man would telephone Sisi to congratulate him on his superb – nay, miraculous – triumph in Egypt, just as I said he would.

But did he call Sisi “a great guy” and tell him he was doing “a great job”? According to the White House, the two leaders “affirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt” and spoke of “Russia and Iran’s irresponsible support of the Assad regime’s brutal attacks against innocent civilians”.

Which means that Sisi, for Trump, is indeed a great guy doing a great job.

Funny, though, how Trump is becoming as predictable as an Arab election. Do they perhaps have something in common?

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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