The United Nations General Assembly convening next week in New York will again be dominated by issues from the Middle East. While it is beyond the scope or purpose of this short column to run down all the issues and actors in play, there are two that bear watching: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi President Barham Salih. Both come to New York with a challenging set of interests and objectives facing their countries. Both will be instrumental in what happens in Syria and the Gulf, and with Iran. Here’s a breakdown of what we can expect.
Can Erdogan convince Trump on sanctions, Syria safe zone?
Let’s start with Erdogan. He does National Security by Summit — meaning he tries to get things done when he’s face to face with other leaders. Last week he hosted his Astana trio partners — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — to discuss Syria. Our take is that Putin inched Erdogan toward his endgame of “Syrian sovereignty” — that is, an eventual rapprochement between the Turkish president and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, with Putin as the man in the middle, to address the various flashpoints in Syria, including Idlib, the "safe zone" in the northeast and the resettlement of as many as 3 million refugees from Turkey to Syria.
During the summit, Rouhani referred to a 1998 bilateral agreement between Turkey and Syria as a good template for security and conflict reconciliation, as Hamidreza Azizi reports. The Adana agreement, named for the southern Turkish city, kept Turkey and Syria from going to war over the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Syrian government handed over PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and closed PKK bases in Syria to keep the peace.
Resurrecting that accord has been one of Putin’s objectives to secure what he considers the missing peace between Syria and Turkey, as Maxim Suchkov wrote back in January.
Meanwhile, US and Turkish officials have made major strides on implementation of a safe zone, now called a "security mechanism" by Pentagon officials, including the establishment of joint aerial and ground patrols and removal of Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fortifications, as Jack Detsch reports.
These steps, however, seem at some remove from Erdogan’s position. The Turkish president can’t seem to stomach the United States continuing to provide “tailored arms and vehicles” to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to keep up the fight against the Islamic State. As we have written often before, the US-allied SDF is made up primarily of the YPG, the gendarme of the Kurdistan Democratic Union (PYD), which Turkey considers a branch of the PKK, which it and the United States have both tagged as a terrorist organization.
With his Russian and Iranian counterparts next to him, Erdogan said Sept. 16 that “there is no longer [an Islamic State] threat in Syria. The biggest threat to Syria’s future is the PKK and its extension PYD/YPG. So long as the PKK/PYD continues to exist therein, neither Syria nor our region can find peace.” (Our emphasis.)
Two days later, citing the support of Putin and Rouhani, Erdogan said he would implement his own plans for the safe zone in two weeks if there is no solution to the present crisis.
Erdogan wants the safe zone to accommodate the relocation of 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Even if the Trump administration is considering $25 million in stabilization assistance, in addition to an additional $300 million it has received from the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, these amounts don’t account for the scale of Erdogan’s "grand plan" for the refugees and safe zone, as Diego Cupolo writes. The United States is holding the line at a safe zone of only 14-15 kilometers; Erdogan wants more than twice that. This is in addition to the seeming unbridgeable gap between how the United States and Turkey view the YPG.
So Erdogan, with his two-week deadline, has raised the stakes for his meeting with US President Donald Trump next week. Like Erdogan, Trump is a summit-focused leader, and the two leaders have a genuine connection. Trump has defied his advisers and hesitated to sanction Turkey for purchasing the Russian-made S-400 missile system, and seems willing to entertain discussions about Turkey buying Patriot missiles. How Trump will respond to appeals to a more expansive safe zone is unknown. And Trump is not willing to bail on the Syrian Kurds, despite his connection with Erdogan.
Neither Putin, Trump, nor Erdogan has the magic bullet to solve Turkey’s refugee dilemma. Erdogan’s blood feud with Assad will not be quickly or easily put aside, and the United States will continue to steer Erdogan off Putin’s path toward rapprochement.
The answer ultimately lies in some type of understanding between Trump and Putin on Syria, but that seems not in the cards, at least not now. Until then, as Semih Idiz writes, Erdogan is caught between Trump and Putin, and the agony of no good options in Syria.
Salih: Iraq as 'starting point for new regional system'
Iraqi President Salih is also worth watching next week, and not just because Iraq is on the front lines of any potential escalation in US-Saudi-Iran hostilities over the Sept. 14 attacks on Aramco oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran. (Ali Mamouri has the scoop on how Iraq has tried to distance itself from those attacks.)
Perhaps just as important, or even more important, will be Salih’s message that changes in Iraq’s policies reveal how it can be part of the solution to the regional crisis through diplomacy and economic integration. In other words, Iraq as a bridge rather than a battlefield.
Iraq has been known for its factional politics, but that is more past than present. On national security in particular, Salih is in total sync with Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and Speaker of the Council of Representatives (parliament) Mohammed al-Halbousi. Neither of the "three presidents" commands the sectarian and ethnic parliamentary blocs to muscle an agenda, but that’s probably to the good. Their strength is in their unity and commitment to state institutions rather than factional leaders. And this has allowed Iraq to chart a new and independent foreign policy.
Salih, in a speech last week, referred to “hard-won victories of the Iraqi forces against terrorism” as “a starting point for a new regional system … based on economic integration, providing good job opportunities for regional youth, and advancing progress on the educational, health, health services and other fronts.”
And Iraq is advancing this "new system" by deeds as well as words. We have documented since March Iraq’s steps toward economic integration with Jordan and Egypt. In July we wrote that “the reset in Iraq’s Arab relations cannot be understated; it is a watershed. Abdul Mahdi and Salih are washing away the perception of sectarianism in Iraq’s regional policy while positioning Iraq as a possible bridge, rather than a partisan, in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
The Wall Street Journal reports this week that Saudi Arabia has asked the Iraqi state oil company to provide as many as 20 million barrels of crude for the kingdom’s domestic refineries to compensate for the losses from the drone and missile attacks.
Iraq is also working with the Gulf Cooperation Council to import electricity to cover Basra — a start to building an alternative to Iraq’s dependence on Iranian electricity, as Mamouri reports.
And Iraq is working on a new, second oil pipeline to transport Iraqi oil to Turkey, as Omar Sattar reports.
Bryant Harris writes that some in Congress are also picking up the thread, calling for the Trump administration to expand its engagement in Iraq. The State Department requested $166 million in Iraqi assistance for 2020, but the proposed Senate spending mark is $453.6 million. The Senate bill also advocates for a renewed US diplomatic presence in Basra; the consulate was closed last year after rockets landed near the airport that houses the building.
The idea here is not for Iraq to be pressed to "take sides," resurrecting some outdated and failed notion of Iraq as the "eastern flank" against Iran, as was the hype during Saddam Hussein’s disastrous rule. Instead, Salih and his compatriots in the three presidencies have set their country on a different course, one that prioritizes Iraqi sovereignty and avoids conflict. The Trump administration could win by encouraging Iraq’s leadership turn. Iraq’s path is admittedly fragile, but in a potentially explosive region it has the marks of an increasingly sound investment.
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