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US, Russia converge on terrorism, diverge on Iran

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan begins his visit to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar on Sunday, burdened by his differences with the US, Germany and the EU, his domestic problems, and his weak position in the Turkish-Russian-Iranian triangle in Syria. He denies having a project to put the Muslim Brotherhood in power to guarantee Turkish dominance, but denies the failure of this project.

Erdogan visits Saudi Arabia amid Riyadh’s resentment over the deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar, which will affect the climate of the meetings. Then there is the Kurdish question, which continues to vex Erdogan in Syria while serving as a bargaining chip in Iraq. This comes amid major shifts on the ground — military ones in Syria and political ones in Iraq — with the approaching referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence.

And Erdogan is haunted by his domestic nightmares, which have imposed on him a siege mentality, prompting measures such as the detention and sacking of thousands, including generals, following the failed coup attempt against him a year ago, which he fears may be repeated.

His problem is that he imagines himself as a leader like Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he lacks the characteristics and capacity to replicate the latter’s successes. The result is that Erdogan has shackled himself to failed projects such as the Brotherhood, not to mention his obsession with the Kurdish question, the arbitrariness of his challenges to Europe and the Gulf, his schizophrenic dealings with the US, and his obscure vision for Turkey.

Erdogan will most likely object and insist that Ankara has a sovereign right to decide the nature of its relations with Doha. Analysts see this as toxic for Turkish-Gulf relations and say it isolates Turkey.

Ankara says Erdogan sees Saudi Arabia and Qatar as two friendly countries, and his visit is in support of Kuwaiti mediation to resolve the crisis. The Saudi message to him is that his insistence on continuing a military relationship with Doha will turn Turkey into a party to the conflict and spoil its role as a mediator.

The gradual resolution of the differences between Qatar and the Anti-Terror Quarter (ATQ) boycotting Doha — comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — and implementation of their six principles is now possible.

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the UN, said implementation of the six principles is subject to discussion, and the US-Qatari counterterror deal is a step in the right direction. Saudi diplomacy is trying to entice Doha to return to the Gulf fold, instead of allowing itself to become isolated in its immediate neighborhood.

The collapse of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would benefit Iran first and foremost, especially in terms of its bid to establish a regional security system that comprises GCC countries, Iran and Iraq. Such a system requires the dismantling of the GCC security system, and would consecrate Tehran as a major regional power at the expense of the other members of its proposed security system.

Trump is forging ahead with what the Obama administration failed to implement: Containing Iran and Hezbollah financially, politically and even legally.

Raghida Dergham

This was Iran’s dream under former US President Barack Obama, who distanced his country from the Arab Gulf states and embraced Tehran as an alternative partner. But under President Donald Trump, Iran’s dream may be difficult to realize because US-Gulf relations have been restored to their previous warmth.

The GCC’s collapse would also lead to the division and fragmentation of its members, undermining their interests and weakening them at the security, economic and political levels. Such a collapse may be desirable to powers such as the US, Russia and the Europeans for reasons related to oil, gas and arms deals. Turkey, Israel and Iran may also desire this, as it further weakens Arab weight in the regional balance of power.

Turkey is part of a triangle with Russia and Iran in Syria, though some in the Gulf believe Ankara has an independent position that counterbalances Tehran in this triangle. Both Turkey and Iran have religious ideological motives.

Erdogan’s Turkey is the standard-bearer of the Brotherhood, which hijacked the revolutions of the youths in Tunisia and Egypt in particular, in the name of a democracy that ends with elections but does not honor the principle of separating the branches of power.

Iran’s ideology is based on establishing a parallel militia alongside the regular army, like its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and whatever was being similarly done in Syria before Russia insisted on stopping it.

The US-Russia accords on Syria and Iraq converge on two points, in addition to the priority of eliminating Daesh- and Al-Qaeda-linked groups. Firstly, Putin and Trump oppose what Obama once accepted: Imposing religion on the state following the Turkish or Iranian models.

They both favor pressuring the IRGC, Hezbollah and the PMU, but this does not mean a desire to topple the regime in Tehran. They are also against putting Iran and Hezbollah on terror lists, because Hezbollah is a strong partner on the ground in the axis comprising Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime.

Secondly, Washington and Moscow claim to be against partition in Syria and Iraq. Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, recently expressed concern over the consequences of the upcoming referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq, for example over efforts to defeat Daesh. But at the same time, she appreciated the legitimate aspirations of the Kurds. Tehran too claims to be opposed to the partition of Iraq. Ali Larijani, chairman of Iran’s Shoura Council, warned against the destructive consequences of plots to divide Iraq. Addressing a Kurdish delegation after a meeting, he said partitioning the country would implicate the Kurds in conflicts that could destroy all their achievements.

Hoshyar Zebari, chairman of the Higher Referendum Council, said the vote carries risks but the timing is right, and the Kurds are not awaiting Baghdad’s permission. Turkey does not seem opposed to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, but is categorically opposed to any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria.

The Washington Post reported that the US-Russia accords were behind Trump’s decision to end covert CIA support for Syrian rebel groups, which Moscow saw as targeting its ally Bashar Assad and therefore undermining its interests. Trump’s decision suggests a radical change in his Syria policy since he took office. But the CIA program, launched under Obama, was full of holes and was more symbolic than pragmatic.

It is not known what Trump has gotten in return from Moscow, but this deal is likely to be just one of a series. Another mystery in the US-Russia accords is Tehran, caught between Moscow’s rewards and Washington’s sanctions. The Gulf countries allied to the US have received reassurances and promises regarding Iran.

But a quick look at the geography of the territories reclaimed from Daesh in Iraq and Syria is sufficient to understand that the Persian Crescent project is moving ahead despite threats and sanctions. There does not seem to be any real role on the ground for Islamic Coalition forces to fill the vacuum. Nor is there yet a Gulf or Arab seat at the table of the US-Russia accords, bearing in mind that Iran and Turkey are both represented via the triangle with Russia.

US measures against Iran and Hezbollah are proceeding according to a policy coordinated between the Departments of Treasury, State, Justice and Homeland Security. In other words, Trump is forging ahead with what the Obama administration failed to implement: Containing Iran and Hezbollah financially, politically and even legally.

But the nuclear deal remains outside this escalation, with the Trump administration recently saying Tehran was abiding by the agreement, even though Trump had called it a bad deal on the campaign trail.

All sides are aware of the demographic changes being imposed in areas liberated from Daesh in Iraq and Syria. But most are burying their heads in the sand, as if Daesh will be uprooted magically and extremism will be diluted by international and regional arrangements over Iraq and Syria, amid the tragedy of the destruction of two major Arab peoples and states that were indispensable for counterbalancing Iran, Israel and Turkey.

In order to avoid even bigger mistakes, key players in the Arab world should see the forest for the trees.

• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

— Originally published in Al-Hayat.