16 November 2012

Dangerous Times in the Middle East

I have been meaning to write a post about the dangerous nexus in the Middle East but I never got around doing it. You could say that recent events forced my hand.

If you are aware of this blog, chances are you know that my working hypothesis is that a Palestinian and Kurdish statehood is a necessity to bring stability to the Middle East. Stability is needed because more than 70 percent of world's oil and gas originates and transported through this region. And whoever controls the distribution of this flow will be in a very good position vis-a vis rising super powers like China and India. Accordingly, I maintain that to achieve these dual goals of stability and control, the US has been pressuring Israel and Turkey to negotiate in earnest with Palestinians and Kurds.

As I noted in the early days of this blog, having a working hypothesis is no guarantee that things will work out according to plan. People of that region rarely act as rational agents and tend to go off script even when it is not in their interest to do so.

Case in point are the recent actions of Netanyahu and Erdogan in their respective countries.

Netanyahu did not have to call early elections as he had a nice majority in Knesset with Kadima as his coalition partner. By linking Likud's fate to Lieberman's Ysrael Beiteinu he more or less guaranteed a much smaller majority after the January elections.  In fact, with Ehud Olmert exonerated and back in politics Kadima may surprise people and could make a decent come back.

Instead of doing all this, Netanyahu could have negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas and sign a peace deal before the regularly scheduled elections in October 2013.  Hamas was weakened considerably because of its internal divisions and Mahmoud Abbas was making very conciliatory noises about Palestinians right to return.

In that context, Netanyahu chose that moment in time to take out the military leader of Hamas, Ahmed al-Jabari. The move turned the Iran-backed faction of Hamas into a symbol of martyrdom and made them popular again in Gaza and West Bank. Once again, they became the main voice of Palestinians eclipsing the more diplomatic and conciliatory Abbas and the Khaled Meshaal faction of Hamas.

Moreover, the move led to retaliation from Hamas creating a fluid and dangerous situation, one that might force Israel to use ground forces to occupy Gaza again.

The problem with that possibility is that Egypt is no longer governed by Mubarak. True, the Brotherhood signed off on the same scenario, but there is a limit to what they can do before they loose all credibility in the eyes of their members and supporters. That is why, the Egyptian Prime Minister went to Gaza right away and declared that unlike the previous Operation Cast Lead, Egypt will not close the Rafah passage. And the Egyptian President stated that Egypt will not abandon Gaza and will support them "against blatant Israeli aggression."

At this juncture, a military operation will be risky because of the Egyptian involvement in the crisis. If the Palestinians die in droves (like the previous incursion) Egypt will come under tremendous pressure to help them. But not doing anything at this point is not a tenable position for Israel, as it would appear like a weakness and strengthen Hamas' resolve to continue to resist any peace negotiations.

Basically, Netanyahu snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. He had everything going for him and he gambled unnecessarily and now put Israel in a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't position.

Turkey and the PKK

Something similar is taking place in Turkey. If you read my posts about Syria and the importance of Kurds in that conflict, you know that the PKK is playing a tricky game. They try to position themselves as the leaders of the larger Kurdistan in order to become the main interlocutor for eventual negotiations.

In that vein, they escalated their hit and run attacks in recent months, directed their Syrian counterpart PYD to go against their Kurdish brothers supported by Massoud Barzani and they had their imprisoned militants to undertake a very public and large scale hunger strike in Turkey. Right now 600 inmates (joined recently by Kurdish politicians) are on a strict diet of sugary water and vitamins for over 60 days. Some of them might die in the coming days.

Just like Netanyahu, Erdogan was under the impression that he could tighten the screws on the PKK before announcing a peace initiative. Not only did it not work but the hunger strike and Erdogan's intransigent posture turned the PKK into a popular organization once again. The inmates who participated in this strike are seen by the Kurds as heroes suffering and drying for the Kurdish cause.

In short, by doubling down, Erdogan single-handedly elevated the stature and importance of the PKK. In the process, PPK's hit-and-run actions helped the ultra-nationalistic parties and led to a widespread anti-Kurdish sentiment. This, in turn, made an eventual peace process distinctly unpalatable to a large segment of the Turkish society.

Like Netanyahu, Erdogan could have negotiated a peace agreement with Kurds. This would have helped the situation in Syria as it would have neutralized the PYD. It would also have bolstered Barzani's position among the Kurds of the region. And of course, it would have led to a peaceful solution for the Kurdish problem.

Like his Israeli counterpart, he too snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

One could envisage an American push to get them back on track. But Obama's hands will be full with the Fiscal Cliff negotiations. And the only other person with the necessary stature to influence these actors, Hillary Clinton, is about to pass her mantle on to either John Kerry or Susan Rice.

In short, I am not very optimistic about the near future. Things are likely to get worse before they get better.

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