FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

With ISIS Defeated, Trump Targets Iran

The shadowy figures of Kurdish fighters can be just made out on film as they ambush and kill three pro-Turkish fighters in a night time attack in Afrin in northern Syria. The Kurdish enclave was invaded and occupied by the Turkish army and their Syrian armed opposition allies earlier in the year. Sporadic guerrilla warfare has been going on ever since.

This skirmish took place a few days after an attack on a military parade by gunmen a thousand miles away from Afrin in Ahvaz in southwest Iran that killed 25 people. Film shows soldiers and civilians running in panic as they are sprayed with bullets, leaving 25 dead, including 11 conscripts and a four-year-old child. The killings were claimed by both Isis and Arab separatists from the province of Khuzestan whom the Iranians accused of acting as catspaws for the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

These incidents matter because they may be the harbinger of the next round of confrontations, crises and wars engulfing the Middle East. The most recent phase of conflict in the region saw the rise and fall of Isis and failed campaigns to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iraq. But Isis, which three years ago ruled a de facto state with a population of five or six million, has been largely crushed and confined to desert hideouts. President Bashar al-Assad – whose fall was confidently predicted after the uprising in 2011 – is firmly in power, as is the Iraqi government that suffered calamitous defeats at the time of the Isis capture of Mosul in 2014.

But the round of conflicts just ending may soon be replaced by another with different players and different issues. The guerrilla action in Afrin is a single episode in the escalating confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria which will involve the US and Russia. The Middle East is always dangerous because, like the Balkans before 1914, it is full of complex but ferocious conflicts that draw in the great powers. The risk is always there but is more dangerous under President Trump because he and his administration view the Middle East through a paranoid prism in which they everywhere see the hidden hand of Iran. President George W Bush and Tony Blair had similar tunnel vision during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when they blamed everything that went wrong on a remnant of Saddam Hussein supporters. 

The exaggeration of “the Iranian threat” by the Trump administration this week at the UN General Assembly in New York was very like what was being said about Iraq fifteen years earlier. The National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened that “the murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behaviour. We are watching, and we will come after you.” The US military intervention in Syria, previously targeting Isis, will in future be directed against Iranian influence.

US policy in Syria and Iraq has been likened to playing chess while mistaking the knight for the bishop and thinking that castles move diagonally. The US has decided to retain a military force in northeast Syria in order to thwart Iranian ambitions, but the country most affected by this is not Iran but Turkey. The US can only stay in this part of Syria in alliance with the Syrian Kurds, whose de facto state, which they call Rojava, Turkey is pledged to eliminate.

Turkey has been nibbling its way into northern Syria over the past two years and is now deploying troops in Idlib province in cooperation with the Russians. A shaky alliance with Turkey as a leading Nato military power is one of the biggest Russian gains of its military intervention in Syria which it will go a long way to preserve. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now threatening to extend the Turkey advance east of the Euphrates river in order to slice up the Kurdish statelet.

This would mean the extinction of the last remaining gain of the Syrian uprising of 2011. Rojava was the unexpected creation of the Syrian Kurds and their YPG militia that allied themselves with the US against Isis during the siege of Kurdish city of Kobani in 2014. They provide the ground troops and the US the airpower.

The US-backed Kurds are greatly overextended, holding a swathe of northeast Syria, half of whose population are Arabs hostile to Kurdish rule. It is not a place where American troops can stay forever without becoming somebody’s target. Prolonged US presence invites disaster as with the American ground operations in Lebanon in 1982-84, Somalia in 1992-95 and in Iraq in 2003-11. “There will always be people in the Middle East who think that the best way to get rid of the Americans is to kill some of them,” noted one observer with long experience of region.

Denunciations of Iran as the root of all evil by Trump, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN ambassador Nikki Haley are simple minded to the point of idiocy. Haley responded to the Ahvaz massacre by telling the government to “look in the mirror”. Bolton last year promised the exiled Iranian opposition group, the very weird cult-like Mojahedin-e Khalq, that by 2019 they would be ruling Iran. This week he was saying that there would be “hell to pay” if Iran stood in the way of the US.

The blood-curdling rhetoric may be arrogant and puerile but should be taken seriously because it reflects the same attitude of mind that preceded past US interventions in the Middle East: the enemy is demonised and underestimated at the same time. There is credulity towards self-interested exiled groups who claimed that US intervention would be easy (Iraqi opposition groups were privately cynical in 2003 about how far they were misleading the Americans on this score). Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE have an interest in luring the US into fighting Iran, though they are not intending to do much fighting themselves. 

The twists and turns of US policy in the Middle East has in the past mystified knowledgeable observers who attribute bizarre actions by the White House to stupidity and ignorance of local conditions. But US policy was often more rational than it looked – so long as one understood that it was determined by American domestic politics and the main purpose was to persuade the US voter, particularly in the run up to important elections, that their president had not mired them in a bloody and unsuccessful war.

The reputation of every US President since the 1970s, with the exception of President George Bush senior, has been damaged to a greater or lesser degree by conflict in the Middle East or North Africa. There is Jimmy Carter (Iran), Ronald Reagan (Lebanon, Irangate), Bill Clinton (Somalia), George W Bush (Iraq, Afghanistan), Barack Obama (Syria, Libya). It would be surprising if Trump turns out to be an exception to the rule.

 

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail