Steven Sahiounie, journalist and political commentator
Hot-spots in the Middle East are heating up to volcano-like tensions. With Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey living on a knife edge, Steven Sahiounie of MidEastDiscourse interviewed Gilbert Mercier.
Gilbert Mercier is the author of “The Orwellian Empire“, a co-editor in chief of News Junkie Post and a geopolitical analyst for radio & TV. He is a French journalist, photojournalist and filmmaker based in the United States since 1983.
1. Steven Sahiounie (SS): We have seen several military attacks on the American Army bases in the east of Syria, and at the same time there have been airstrikes on the Iranian military groups in Deir Ez Zor in the east of Syria. In your opinion, is this tension between Tehran and Washington just for political reasons, or is it to influence the Iranian nuclear deal?
Gilbert Mercier (GM): Ali Fahim, an Iraqi geopolitical analyst, recently said in an interview with The Tehran Times: “The arrival of Ebrahim Raisi (newly elected Iranian President) to the helm of power give a great moral impetus to the resistance axis”.
However, let’s wait and see, after Raisi is effectively in power in August. But it is a fact that since the pull out of the 2015 multi-lateral nuclear deal by the Trump administration, the tensions have been on the rise. I actually suspect that it was the real intention of the Trump pull out: firstly, provoke Tehran, secondly undo one of the best foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. The Trump administration was also using its unfair economic sanctions on Iran as a squeeze for regime change purpose. This obviously was a complete fiasco, the Islamic Republic of Iran suffered, but held together.
As far as military tensions in the region, there are a lot of countries, beside Syria, where conflicts are simmering or full blown between groups supported by Iran and groups supported by the United States. The US does it mainly via various proxies such as, of course Israel in the entire region, but also Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate in Yemen, and presently Turkey in Syria. Right now conflicts are active in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine. But something could ignite in Lebanon at any time.
For its part, Iran views itself as the lead supporter of the “resistance movement” through they support for their regional allies such as Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad, but even beyond the Middle-East as one of the supporter of Maduro in Venezuela. The upcoming Iranian administration do not hide their international ambition. Why should they? I think they see themselves as a leader of smaller nonaligned countries resisting US imperialism. Either be in Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon and as far as Venezuela. The way I see it, even so it is completely different ideologically, they have replaced the leadership of someone like Tito in Yugoslavia and Castro in Cuba. Both of them were leaders of the nonaligned movement during the Cold war when the United States and the USSR were competing for a world split in two. Now the dynamic has shifted because of the rise of China in term of global geopolitical influence.
In the United States, Europe and the Gulf States, Raisi has been categorized as a “hardliner cleric and judge”. But, let’s not forget that In Iran, major foreign policy issues are not just up to the President to decide. It is a consensus process with many involved, and in final such critical decisions are always signed off by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei has already indicated that he supports going back to the 2015 nuclear deal. During his electoral campaign, Raisi who is closed to Khamenei, despite previous opposition, said that, if elected, he would uphold the 2015 landmark nuclear deal.
2. SS: Turkey is occupying the city of Idlib in north west Syria. Media reports say the might be a military operation from Syria and Russia to liberate the city. In your opinion, will this operation succeed, and is Russia ready to face Turkey?
GM: The problem of the pocket of Idlib has to be resolved, and unfortunately it can only be dealt with a full on military operation with troops from Bashar al-Assad and Russia. Of course Turkey is adamant about keeping a military presence and influence within Syria to prevent a complete Assad victory. I do think that Russia is ready to face Turkey, and I think that the Syrian army and Russian forces will prevail.
Indeed, Erdogan has been overplaying his hand for quite some time now. This is including with many of his supposed NATO allies. As matter of fact, many of them such as France, Greece and even Germany would not mind having him out of NATO all together.
In regard to Erdogan there are important factors at play which explain why he is still popular with Turks, but also why his position could become precarious. I explained this in an interview not that long ago: Erdogan is playing on Turkish nostalgia for the Ottoman empire.
For your readers to better understand this, we have to go back to the middle of World War I. During the war, the Ottoman empire was allied with Germany. In 1916, the Sykes-Picot secret agreement effectively sealed the fate of the Middle-East post World War I. The British/ French agreement, in expectation of a final victory, was a de-facto split of the Ottoman empire. In this new colonial/imperial “zones of influence”, an euphemism for an Anglo-French control of the region, the British would get Palestine, Jordan, Iraq as well as the Gulf area, while France, for its part, would take control of Syria and Lebanon. More than 100 years later, the misery created by the imperialist Sykes/ Picot deal still linger in the entire region. From Palestine and the 1948 English blessed creation of the Zionist state of Israel to Iraq. France put in place two protectorates in Syria and Lebanon which did not fare much better for the respective populations.
This is the reason why some Turks and especially Erdogan feel untitled to an intrusive role in the region. It is the weight of history and the nostalgia of 600 years’ rule of the Middle-East. The unfortunate story of the region is to go from one imperialism to another. That said, with the American empire taking over in the mid-1950s, they concurrence became the influence of the USSR. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had carte blanche and could become blunter about exploitation of resources, regime change policies, and of course being the eternal champion of the sacred state of Israel. Quickly Saudi Arabia, the United States Emirates and Qatar became the US best friends in the Arab world. I have called this alliance between the West, Israel and the oil rich Gulf states an unholy alliance. It is still at play, now mainly against Iran.
Since having free reign, after the collapse of the USSR, the US empire wanted to assert a worldwide hegemony using mostly two different approaches: either by supporting autocratic regimes like in the Gulf States or by pursuing regime change policies to weaken sovereign nations. This is what I have called engineering failed states: a doctrine at play in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Often, Islam soldiers of fortune called at first “freedom fighters” then down the line terrorists of ISIS, once the mercenaries developed independent ambitions, served that purpose as both, tools of proxy wars and down the line justification for direct military interventions. Bottom line results being always the same: deaths and destruction. Tabula rasa of Iraq, Libya and Syria with millions killed, countries in ruins, and millions of refugees scattered to the wind.
3. SS: Turkey announced that they will send 2,000 Syrian terrorist (Free Syrian Army) to Afghanistan. Is this action from President Erdogan legal, and what benefit will he get out of sending these terrorists?
GM: As far as Turkey sending some of their available Syrian mercenaries to Afghanistan, they should send a matching number of body bags. Legal or not, which mean rubber stamped by the UN or not, if they try to get in the way of the Taliban they will be shredded to pieces. What could be possibly their “mission” anyway? Does Erdogan think that he is a modern day version of Alexander the Great? This is plainly laughable! The Pashtuns are in the process of taking control of Afghanistan, and that is the reality. The Taliban want all foreigners out, this includes Turks and Syrian mercenaries.
4. SS: The last military conflict between the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza and the Israeli occupation was one of the worst in years. In your opinion, after the big loss that the Israeli occupation faced, do you think they will do any military action against Lebanon or Iran as they are threatening in their media?
GM: In term of the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, living either in Gaza or in the occupied territories, one element has changed in Israel: Netanyahu is no longer in power. Let’s not be naive and think that the new Israeli administration will be less Zionist in their support for Jewish settlers expending their occupation of Palestinian land, but we might have a small shift, more like a pause in Israel bellicose behavior.
In regard to Lebanon, despite the country dreadful political and economic situation, it would be ill advised for Israel to consider any military action. Israelis know full well that Hezbollah is a formidable fighting force 70,000 men strong, who have been battle hardened, for almost a decade, on Syria’s battle fields. Vis a vis Iran a direct aggression of Israel is even more unlikely. With Trump gone, I think that Israel hawks have missed on that opportunity.
It would be unwise, even border line suicidal, for the Israeli state to open up that many potential fronts at once. That is: one with Hezbollah, one with Hamas, and perhaps one with Bashar al-Assad army. Naturally, all of them would have the backing and logistic support of Iran.
Once the 2015 nuclear agreement is in force again with the Biden administration, I think that the tensions in the region will decrease a lot. For its part, it is very likely that in the new deal negotiations, Iran will legitimately request that the US economic sanctions put in place by the Trump administration are dropped.
5. SS: When US President Biden was still running for office, he promised to end the Yemen war, but after 6 months in office, he failed. In your opinion, will he put an end to the Saudi aggression in Yemen?
GM: One thing about US administrations, which has remained constant pretty much since the end of World War II, is an almost absolute continuity in terms of foreign policies. From Bush to Obama, Obama to Trump, and now Trump to Biden, it doesn’t really matter if the US president is a Democrat or a Republican. The corner stone of the United States foreign policy is to at least maintain, but preferably increase America’s hegemony by any means necessary. This assertion of US imperialism can be blunt, like in the case of Trump, or be more hypocritical and adopt a pseudo humanitarian narrative like during the Obama era.
Bottom line, the imperialist imperatives of military and economic dominance have been at the core of US policies. It is doubtful it can change easily. Mohammed bin-Salman’s war in Yemen is part of this scenario. Some naively thought MBS would be pushed aside by the Biden administration. However, the clout of the Saudis remained intact despite the CIA report on the assassination of the Washington Post journalist in Turkey. All evidences pointed at bin-Salman, but he was not pushed aside by his father. MBS is still Saudi Arabia autocratic ruler under Biden. The Saudis oil and money still have a considerable influence in Washington.
The Saudis understand very well, since the 1970s, that their real geopolitical power resides in the way they can impact global oil prices. They still can make the barrel price go up or down to serve specific geopolitical interests. Recently the Saudis tried to help the US regime change policy in Venezuela. They flooded the market to make oil price crash. The black gold is an economic weapon that Saudi Arabia and their United Arab Emirates ally have used countless times.
Further, another reason why the Saudis have a lot of weight in Washington and elsewhere is their considerable appetite for expensive weapon systems. Therefore, how can you oppose the will of one of the best client of the corporate merchants of death of the military-industrial complex?
That said Steven, and to conclude this interview, people from countries like Yemen or Palestine, who are fighting against an occupation of their land, should find hope in what is going on in Afghanistan. The 20-years-old NATO war is about to end, and the real outcome is a victory of the Pashtuns-Taliban, against all odds and what is supposed to be the most powerful military alliance ever assembled in history.
Steven Sahiounie is an award-winning journalist