“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.
US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.
In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.
This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.
Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.
And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.
From violent beginnings
In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.
But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.
To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.
Trump’s betrayal could open up ISIS recruitment
Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.
What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.
Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.
This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.
But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.
Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.
IS hardliners in overcrowded camps
IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.
IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.
But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.
As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.
Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.
In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.
The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.
Liberated ISIS fighters
The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.
From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.
Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.
The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.
It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.
The five-day ceasefire negotiated by US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan ends today.
Despite the shaky ceasefire, the risk of economic sanctions from the US and worldwide condemnation, Turkey is likely to stay in Syria for a long time.
The anticipated clash between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government is also unlikely to eventuate, for three three reasons:
Erdogan’s main aims require the army to stay in Syria for the long term
Assad’s and Erdogan’s goals in northeastern Syria strangely overlap
The coordinating role of Russia in Syria prevents the need for Erdogan and Assad to clash in open warfare.
Has Turkey achieved its objectives?
Even though Turkey has been building its forces on the border for some time, the US-allied Kurdish YPG (which Turkey considers a terrorist group) was caught by surprise. They were busy fighting Islamic State and not expecting the US to allow Turkish forces across the border. Battle-weary YPG forces were no match for the powerful Turkish army.
As a result, Kurdish commanders begged the Trump administration to intervene. The ceasefire deal was struck to allow YPG forces to withdraw beyond what Turkey calls a “safe zone”. Trump declared the ceasefire to be a validation of his erratic Syrian policy.
Turkey’s immediate objective of establishing a 32-kilometre deep and 444-kilometre wide safe zone across its border with Syria will likely be achieved.
Yet establishing this zone is just the precursor to Erdogan’s three primary objectives. Those are to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees in northeastern Syria, as a result helping to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish administration and, finally, to ensure his political survival by maintaining his alliance with the Turkish nationalist party (MHP).
The June 2019 political loss of the important city of Istanbul to the main Turkish opposition party, primarily due to Syrian refugee debates, has been an important trigger for Erdogan to act on his Syria plans.
These objectives require Turkey to remain in Syria at least until the end of the Syrian civil war. This would mean the status of northeastern Syria and its Kurdish population were clearly determined in line with Turkey’s goals. These outcomes could take many years to eventuate.
So, any withdrawal before the primary objectives are met will be seen as a defeat within Turkey. Erdogan wants to enter the 2023 presidential elections claiming victory in Syria.
Erdogan’s and Assad’s goals overlap
With the US no longer a serious contender in Syrian politics, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the only leaders capable of stymieing Erdogan’s objectives.
Prior to Turkey’s military intervention, the relationship between the Kurdish leadership and Assad administration was one of mutual avoidance of conflict. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, they have never clashed militarily.
The expected outcome of this policy was that the Kurds would have an autonomous region in northeastern Syria and an important role in post-civil war negotiations. Assad had no choice but to agree to this in order to stay in power.
The Turkish intervention opens new possibilities for the Assad government. The speed of the alliance between the YPG and Assad indicates the Syrian government senses an opportunity.
The Kurdish-Assad alliance allows Assad’s forces and administration to enter areas they could not enter before. Assad wasted no time in wedging his forces in the safe zone by seizing the major Kurdish town of Kobani in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite the Kurdish-Assad alliance, resettling Syrian Arab refugees in Kurdish regions will weaken Kurdish claims to the region and suit Assad’s goal of a unified Syria that he totally controls.
There is another immediate benefit for Assad. Idlib is a strategic city in northwestern Syria and the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition to Assad. Resistance groups defeated elsewhere were allowed to gather in Idlib. Careful negotiations took place in the past few years to avoid an all-out bloodbath in Idlib.
Assad will almost certainly ask Turkey to abandon its patronage of Idlib and opposition forces l
ocated there. In return, Assad will allow a temporary Turkish presence in northern Syria.
So, although Kurdish forces signed a deal with Assad, it is highly unlikely this will evolve into active warfare between Turkey and Syria. Instead, the situation will be kept tense – by Assad forces remaining in Kobani – to allow Erdogan and Assad to get what they want.
Russia will prevent a Turkey-Syria clash
This is where Russia and Putin come in. Russia is an ally of both the Turkish and Syrian governments. To save face, Erdogan is unlikely to sit in open negotiations with Assad. Negotiations will be done through Putin.
When Putin and Erdogan meet on October 22, the main negotiating points will be to prevent a war between Turkey and the Russian-armed Assad forces. Erdogan will ask the Russian and Assad governments to allow Turkey to stay in the zone it established. In return, Russia will request further concessions on Idlib and perhaps more arms deals similar to the S-400 missile deal.
A deal between Erdogan and Assad suits Russia because it serves the its main objectives in Syria – keep Assad in power to ensure Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea and weaken NATO by moving Turkey away from the alliance.
If the Kurds realise Assad has no intention of fighting Turkey, they may decide to take matters into their own hands and engage in guerrilla warfare with Turkish forces in northern Syria. While this may deliver a blow to Turkish forces, Erdogan will use it to back his claim they are terrorists.
Regardless of what happens, Turkey will stay in northern Syria for the foreseeable future, no matter the cost to both countries.
The eventual winner in Syria is looking to be the Assad government, which is moving to control the entire country just as it did before the 2011 uprising.
The ramifications of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border continues to have a seismic effect on the situation in northern Syria.
Faced with the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who controlled the area were forced to make compromises. On October 13, they announced a deal with the Syrian army, which began moving troops towards the Turkish border. A five-day ceasefire was brokered by the US on October 18, during which Turkey agreed to pause its offensive to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw.
For many, the SDF proved itself to be the most effective force in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Turkey, however, considers the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it, the US and EU label as a terrorist organisation.
But behind this lies a long history of Turkey denying the very existence of the Kurdish conflict, and the political and cultural rights of its Kurdish population. Understanding this history helps explain why the conflict is so intractable, and the impact it continues to have on Turkey’s foreign policy choices.
No room in the nation state
The Kurdish conflict cannot be understood without considering the question of power and exclusion. Its origins go back to the mid-19th century when the Ottomans attempted to end the 300-year-old autonomy of the Kurdish principalities in Kurdistan. This struggle for autonomy wasn’t resolved during the rule of the Ottoman era, and when it collapsed, all of the new nation states that eventually emerged – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – inherited their own Kurdish conflict.
The Turks and the Kurds fought a successful war of independence together in 1919 against the Allied forces. Nevertheless, when the new Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, Turkish identity was presented as its unifying force, at the expense of the society’s political, social and cultural differences.
Not only was political power further centralised in Ankara, but the domination of the ethnic, Turkish and Sunni majority became the norm. The decision to create a centralised and homogeneous nation state was implemented in a top-down and violent fashion. The seeds of the long-term problems that Turkish and Kurdish communities confront today were created by this decision.
Various Kurdish groups challenged this new social and political order with different revolts, uprisings, and resistance, but these were violently suppressed. Repressive policies of assimilation were later implemented to transform the Kurds into civilised and secular Turks.
A conflict buried
The Kurdish conflict laid buried for many years. Then, the most serious challenge to Turkey’s nation state project was initiated by the PKK in 1984, which embraced a political agenda called democratic autonomy. The violent struggle between Ankara and the PKK has resulted in a huge economic and human cost.
Peace talks which began in 2013 with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan were widely considered to be the best chance for ending the conflict, but these collapsed in 2015. This led to increasing violence in the form of a destructive armed conflict in southeastern Turkey and a wave of bombings, including in Ankara and Istanbul.
The resolution of intractable conflicts is only possible when conflicted parties can confront their past and learn from it. In 2015, amid attempts by Turkish opposition parties to reopen peace negotiations with the Kurds, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted: “There is no Kurdish conflict”. Such positioning, which continues today, keeps the political dimension of the conflict in the background.
The state carefully controls what can and cannot be said about the conflict. Typically, words such as “terror” and “traitor” are used to criminalise those who criticise government policy towards the Kurds. A group of academics who signed a petition in 2016 calling for the resumption of peace talks were charged with making “terrorism propaganda”. The non-violent wing of the Kurdish movement – activists, politicians, political parties – has also been criminalised.
Instead of confronting their failure to bring about peace, Turkish political elites have tried to apportion blame elsewhere. Erdoğan, for example, repeatedly refers to an invisible “mastermind” who orchestrates the PKK. Such rhetoric is deployed to play on the collective fear and anxiety about national security felt by parts of Turkish society.
Some have called this the “Sèvres syndrome” – referring to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that marked the end of the Ottoman empire and proposed to divide it into small states and occupation zones. The treaty was never implemented, and superseded by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which recognised the Republic of Turkey.
This syndrome – also referred to as “Sèvres Paranoia” – in essence reflects the collective fear that the Treaty of Sèvres will be revived and that the Turkish state is encircled by enemies who want to divide and weaken the country.
Today, this line of thinking is an integral part of Turkish political life and continues to influence public perception towards the external world. In a 2006 public opinion survey, for example, 78% of participants agreed that “the West wants to divide and break up Turkey like they broke up the Ottoman Empire”.
In this way, the Kurdish conflict has been used to mobilise Turkish society to act against its own collective interest: a peaceful and just society. Policies aimed at managing the conflict have been implemented mostly within a state of emergency, in ways that continue to undermine Turkish democracy. Not only has the tremendous economic and human cost of the conflict become a “normal” part of Turkish life, but the state has also been successful in actively keeping the political dimension of the conflict at bay.
For a long time, Turkey refrained from talking about the Kurdish issue by assuming that it would eventually fade away. But it didn’t and instead, the conflict has become more deeply entrenched. Time will tell whether the Turkish state will ultimately gain or lose by its latest military intervention in Syria. However, what’s clear is that the Kurdish conflict will get more complicated with this latest move, and both the Turkish state and Turkish society will no longer be able to ignore it.
As tensions remain at fever pitch between Tehran and Washington, Iran continues to breach limits agreed in the 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, its future has become more and more uncertain.
Iran has enriched uranium beyond the level agreed in the deal. A UN report published in late September confirmed reports that the Iranian nuclear agency had begun operating more advanced centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium.
The Western media report these events by relating them to the materials needed for a nuclear weapon. Yet Iran insists that it “will never pursue a nuclear weapon” and that all of its activities are necessary for civilian nuclear power.
The difference between peaceful civilian nuclear energy programmes and the military production of nuclear weapons seems an obvious distinction. And yet, there have been major shifts in the policy regarding this line since explosive nuclear fission was first achieved in the US in 1945. These are partly rooted in a simple and relatively uncontested principle, that there is there is no strict technical difference between the fissile material used in a civilian energy nuclear reactor and that used in a nuclear weapon.
After World War II, the US initially restricted access to “all data concerning the manufacture or use of atomic weapons, the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power” in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.
This meant strict restrictions were put in place on exchanging information on nuclear technology even between the US and the UK, otherwise close allies. The policy was based on that principle that there was little practical difference between the knowledge necessary to build nuclear reactors and that needed to produce “atomic” weapons, such as those the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
US President Harry Truman strongly believed that by restricting access to its information about all nuclear technology, the US could maintain a technical barrier to the production of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world. He was so convinced of this, that he defied the scientific consensus that the Soviet Union tested a bomb in 1949, saying:
I am not convinced the Russians have achieved the know-how to put the complicated mechanism together to make an A-Bomb work, I am not convinced they have the bomb.
However, the Soviet Union had indeed tested a device, albeit with the help of some technical espionage. Then, despite the restrictions on information sharing, the UK tested a weapon in 1952. By the end of 1953, the Soviet Union had followed the US in successfully exploding a thermonuclear weapon.
Atoms for Peace
The initial hopes for a US technical monopoly were dashed. Reversing previous policy, US President Dwight Eisenhower told the UN in 1953 that “the dread secret and the fearful engines of atomic might are not ours alone”. As part of the Atoms for Peace programme, the US spearheaded the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency to help apply atomic energy to other areas of life such as agriculture and medicine, as well as the production of energy.
Over the next 20 years, much previously secret information and technology was shared around the world. For example, the US provided research reactors and enriched uranium to a wide variety of countries including Iran. There was a general tone of optimism over the future of civilian nuclear energy.
This laissez-faire attitude towards the “peaceful uses” of nuclear technology was even enshrined in Article IV of the 1970 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty, which stated a “inalienable right” to “research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”.
This distinction between the civilian and military uses of nuclear technology started to unravel after India exploded a nuclear device in May 1974. This device, supposedly nicknamed the Smiling Buddha, was technically developed outside of the agreements that India had with Canada, who supplied it with nuclear reactors, and the US, who supplied heavy water, needed to sustain a nuclear reaction in those reactors.
However, this outside nuclear assistance was crucial to the nuclear weapons programme. As Homi Sethna, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission between 1972 and 1983, later wrote: “The initial (nuclear) cooperation agreement itself has been the bedrock on which our nuclear programme has been built.”
Despite India’s attempts to brand the test a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, it set off a flurry of concern within the US as well as in other supplier countries including the Soviet Union, UK, and Canada. The worry was that if India, not seen as a developed nation, could produce a nuclear explosion on the back of nominally civilian nuclear assistance, so could others. The worldwide energy crisis of the early 1970s had led many countries to pursue nuclear energy and the Indian example made the growing spread of nuclear technology appear an ominous and menacing development.
The tenor of the debate had changed. For example, in 1975 a deal was announced in which West Germany agreed to provide Brazil with a complete civilian nuclear fuel cycle, potentially including the abilities to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. The New York Times called this “nuclear madness”.
A general reorientation in nuclear policy began. Since then, the nuclear story has generally been one of viewing civilian nuclear programmes as a pathway towards a military nuclear weapons capability. Restrictions on the transfer of and access to nuclear materials and technology have increased. For example, the US and other suppliers began to co-operate in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to restrict access to nuclear technology, for example by not exporting the technology for producing plutonium or enriching uranium.
Yet, academic research shows that the technical capability to enrich uranium is within reach of nearly all states. Although civilian power programmes increase the technical capacity of a state to build nuclear weapons, they have important countervailing political effects that limit the odds of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Despite this, public and media opinion seems tilted towards the view that the US or other supplier states can control the development of nuclear weapons through technical constraints. As such, it seems unlikely that the set of circumstances that produced the JCPOA in the first place – a deal built around restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities – will happen again.
One of the time-honoured tests of the diplomatic skills of any Australian prime minister has been dealing with the United States. We are frequently assured by the hard-headed realists who make and influence strategic policy that this is a relationship no PM can afford to mishandle.
Stuffing up is not an option. To judge by Scott Morrison’s lavish reception by the Trump administration, things really couldn’t be better.
But given our prime minister is dealing with someone who even some respected prominent former public officials from the US think is “seriously, frighteningly, dangerously unstable”, this could well be regarded as a modest triumph. It’s simply not controversial to suggest that Donald Trump is a highly unpredictable, erratic, inexperienced narcissist who has – to put it politely – an implausibly inflated sense of own abilities.
Remembering Australia’s interests while savouring foie gras
Under such circumstances, deciding whether the trip will be judged a success or failure is not a simple task, despite the Murdoch press predictably suggesting that an ever close strategic alliance is the only benchmark that matters.
And why wouldn’t they? After all, Lachlan Murdoch was one of the high profile guests, along with other business luminaries, adding to the theatrical quality of much of the visit.
One assumes that behind closed doors many issues of substance were discussed, even though this is a president who famously doesn’t do detail or nuance.
To judge by some of Trump’s public utterances, however, this can’t have been an easy task. The fact that the president casually mentioned that China, our largest trading partner, is a “threat to the world”, or hinting that the use of nuclear weapons remains an option when dealing with the likes of Afghanistan or Iran, might have given even the most enthusiastic alliance supporter pause for thought.
While some influential Americans may think that destabilising China and undermining President Xi Jinping is not a bad outcome, things are a little more complicated for Australia.
Morrison’s White House visit will confirm many of China’s equally hawkish strategists in their view of Australia as a slavishly predictable lackey of the US.
Indeed, Beijing reminded us of just how important our bilateral relationship with China has become in a recent op-ed in the state mouthpiece, the Global Times. After Arthur Culvahouse, the US ambassador to Canberra, called on Australia to stand up more to China, the Global Times warned:
Morrison would be better off if he kept Australia’s national interests in mind while savouring foie gras at the White House.
When it comes to China, any prime minister would face the same difficult task reconciling Australia’s strategic and economic interests.
Diluting our economic dependence on China won’t be easy or quick. Beijing can signal its displeasure with Australia in the meantime by holding up imports or even discouraging Chinese students from studying in an “unfriendly” country.
To be fair, Morrison has done his best not to gratuitously upset the Chinese leadership at a time when a rising tide of nationalism in China is defining its foreign policy. Indeed, the PM won rare praise in China for his support of embattled Liberal Gladys Liu.
But actions, as they say, speak louder than words in any language, which is what gives this trip such symbolism.
Rising tensions in the Middle East
Such concerns may not be uppermost in Morrison’s mind as the Americans turn on the charm for one its more reliable allies. As he frequently points out,
Australia is a reliable alliance partner — we pull our weight and we get things done.
That these things include fighting endless wars in the Middle East that have little immediate strategic relevance to Australia is less frequently mentioned.
Given that we may be about to embark on yet another entirely unnecessary, unpredictable adventure that may result in a conflict with Iran, this is not an inconsequential concern.
Morrison has been careful not to make an open-ended commitment to the US-led mission to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, but we know only too well how these sorts of modest contributions to shoring up the alliance can end.
Does anyone really think the Vietnam War or the invasion of Iraq were really good ideas in retrospect? And yet, Australia’s policymakers thought they were acting unambiguously in the national interest at the time of those conflicts, too, and they had little option other than to support our great and powerful friend.
Not much has changed in that regard, despite the disastrous consequences of these wars.
Being a junior partner in an alliance is tricky at the best of times. These are plainly not the best of times. The Trump administration’s disdain for the very order the US did so much to construct is one of the major reasons why, as even conservative commentators acknowledge.
In such circumstances, sensible Australian policy might involve more moderation and less ingratiation.
This week’s strikes on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia represent the latest in a pattern of actions by the Islamic Republic of Iran to escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Unlike previous incidents, the impact of this attack has not just been felt locally. With half of Saudi oil output halted – around 6% of total world production – global fuel oil prices have spiked. The markets are spooked.
Direct culpability for the attack remains unclear. While Yemeni Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility, other sources and evidence have pointed to an Iraqi source, potentially the Hashd al-Shaabi militia.
Some sources inside the US government have also outright accused Iran itself. This seems unlikely, though, given Iran’s penchant for proxy activity and plausible deniability.
Regardless of who physically pressed the launch button, however, it is almost certain that Tehran was the primary enabler of the strike. The state has a long history of supplying proxy non-state actors with the equipment, intelligence and training necessary to execute such attacks.
Indeed, in the context of the past few months, the attack appears to be the latest in a series of efforts by Iran to escalate tensions and insecurity in the Persian Gulf to push back on the US “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign.
A strategy of tension
Since early this year, Iran has committed itself to a strategy of destabilisation in and around the Arabian Peninsula.
The reasons have been myriad, but primarily revolve around the fallout from the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement. This has left Iran diplomatically isolated, economically strained and feeling betrayed by the wider international community.
Seeing few good options, the Iranian leadership has decided to promote chaos and instability to inflict what pain it can on global energy markets. The hope is this will add urgency to the negotiations with world powers and force them to seek a political solution to the economic and security standoff that provides an acceptable exit for Iran.
According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Islamic Republic has been involved in nearly 100 incidents over the past few months targeting oil, transport and security infrastructure and equipment.
While Iran has been directly implicated in a few of these cases, the majority appear to have been undertaken by allied non-state actors in Iraq and Yemen.
If one considers Iran’s historical patronage of such organisations, this should come as no surprise. Since the revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has actively cultivated relationships with such groups as a key part of its foreign policy, most famously with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Such close alliances have permitted Tehran to project its influence into areas it otherwise would have little access to. They also grant a degree of plausible deniability when it comes to radical actions like those witnessed this week.
This can make it diplomatically more difficult for affected countries to assign blame and, more importantly, react to such provocations.
In the case of the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, the Iranian leadership has staunchly rejected any responsibility, framing the attack as Houthi revenge against Saudi war crimes.
What was notable in these attacks was their relative bloodlessness and precision. They were primarily designed to threaten and inflict economic harm and uncertainty, rather than kill and maim.
This, combined with a general commitment to employing militant proxies, highlights the Iranian desire to create enough tension to achieve political outcomes, while avoiding crossing a threshold that would lead to dramatic military blowback from the US and its allies.
This is a fine line to walk at the best of times.
Gambling on inaction
Tehran’s brinkmanship rests on an assumption that calibrated provocations will not elicit serious reprisals.
Iran’s security elites have concluded that the Trump administration has little stomach for serious foreign military adventurism. A quick examination of the recent historical record shows that while the current American leadership has demonstrated an unprecedented amount of security policy bark – particularly on Twitter – this has not coincided with a similar level of bite.
Trump’s initial threats of “fire and fury” towards North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 2017 were quickly shown to be pure bluster.
Indeed, such bellicose posturing quickly gave way to unprecedented dialogue between the two countries. This culminated in an ongoing series of no-strings-attached summits in which the US president bizarrely prostrated himself before the Hermit Kingdom’s autocrat for little clear gain.
But, when push came to shove, punitive measures by the US proved little more than anaemic symbolism and posed no serious threat to the regime’s survival.
Just a few months ago, Trump also aborted several military strikes on Iranian military targets after the downing of a US drone. It was another indication Washington has little appetite for open conflict.
Internally, Trump has also clashed heavily with several of the hawks in his administration. In some cases, he has purged them when their views clashed too heavily with his own risk aversion.
The most notable recent example was the humiliating dismissal of his national security adviser, John Bolton, one of the 2003 Iraq war’s chief architects and a staunch advocate of regime change in Iran.
Rolling the dice
The Saudi incident this week represents an undeniable and significant escalation by Iran in its ongoing campaign of tension in the region. The attack has seriously raised the stakes and potential for a conflict between both regional and global players.
But looking at the Trump administration’s recent history, Iranian foreign policymakers are assuming their actions will not spark a dramatic escalation.
In theory, this is a reasonable conclusion, supported by evidence. But security dilemmas like this are characterised by an incredibly complex intersection of competing interests, understandings and short time frames. This often leads to tragic and unpredictable outcomes for those involved.
One has only to look at the ramifications of a previous US intervention against Iranian disruption in the gulf, Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, for evidence of the potential for a rapid escalation to large-scale military exchange.
Australia’s attempts to secure the release of an Australian national and two with joint UK-Australian citizenship from an Iranian prison have become vastly more complicated following the brazen attacks on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend.
Room for quiet diplomacy has been narrowed while the world comes to terms with a strike at the very heart of global energy security.
At this stage, it is not clear to what extent facilities at Saudi Arabia’s main refinery have been crippled, but initial reports indicate it could be weeks and possibly months before it is brought back into full production.
Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq refinery processes about half the kingdom’s oil production. According to initial reports, the attack reduced throughput by 5 million barrels a day, or nearly 5% of global production.
Australia’s former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has offered to intervene with the Iranian authorities in an attempt to secure the release of the Australian nationals being held in Tehran.
These include Mark Firkin and his UK-Australian girlfriend, Jolie King. The two were arrested earlier this year for the unauthorised flying of a drone near a military facility on the outskirts of Tehran. They have not been charged.
More serious at this stage, however, is the case of Melbourne University Middle East specialist and joint UK-Australia citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained in October 2018. She has been sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Iran has not publicly announced details of charges against her.
The cases of Moore-Gilbert, Firkin and King have, inevitably and unhelpfully, become enmeshed in wider geopolitical tensions in which Iran is fighting back against a US sanctions regime that seeks to cripple its economy.
Iran is being accused of “hostage diplomacy” by resorting to the incarceration of foreign nationals at a time when sanctions are rendering enormous damage to its oil-exporting economy.
This is the background to the diplomatic challenges facing the Australian government in its efforts to free its citizens. These are, by any standards, unpromising circumstances.
While Australian officials insist Canberra’s decision to commit to a US-led mission to protect ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz is unconnected to the detention of its citizens, Tehran has a history of using individuals ruthlessly as bargaining chips in a wider geopolitical game.
Hostage taking, or “hostage diplomacy”, has a lengthy tail in the history of the Islamic Republic going back to the November 4, 1979, seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and a siege that ensued for 444 days. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for more than a year.
More recently, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was held in Iran for 544 days before being released with three other Iranian-Americans as part of a prisoner swap in 2016, just before economic sanctions on Iran were lifted under the terms of the nuclear deal.
In recent weeks, Iran has also detained a UK-flagged oil carrier in the Persian Gulf. The Stena Impero remains in Iranian custody, but members of its crew have been let go.
US blaming Iran for Saudi attack
All this was contributing to heightened tensions in the gulf before this weekend’s attacks at the very heart of Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasted little time in blaming Iran for the attacks. Although Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the strikes using drones, Washington is investigating whether cruise missiles were the weapon of choice, fired from either Iraq or Iran itself. A Trump administration official told Reuters,
There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate.
Tehran has denied Washington’s accusations.
Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni government allies have been engaged in a vicious conflict with Houthi rebels since 2015. Thousands have been killed, and many more displaced, in what is regarded as the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today.
Iran is supporting the Houthis and is widely accused of fuelling the Yemen conflict to weaken Saudi Arabia.
In other words, the gulf and its environs are primed for worsening conflict unless the US and Iran can reach an accommodation that would enable an easing of sanctions.
President Donald Trump has been angling for a face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly to address ways in which tensions could be eased.
Attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities – and, thus, the global economy – hardly provides a favourable environment for discussions that might, or might not, take place.
Iran has set as a precondition for talks a relaxation of sanctions.
Australia’s limited leverage
Meanwhile, the Australian government finds itself in a situation where it has limited leverage. Trade between Australia and Iran is negligible and holds little promise as long as sanctions remain in place. Canberra’s decision to join a US-led mission in the Middle East means that it is now identified with Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach.
Australia is one of three countries to have signed up to the US initiative. The others are Britain and Bahrain.
In all of this there is another complicating factor, and one that has been little-reported. Tehran was displeased when Australia arrested an Iranian citizen at the request of the US for breaching sanctions.
Iran made repeated representations to secure the release of Negar Ghodskani after her arrest in 2017. She has pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate the illegal export of technology from the US and faces a hefty fine and jail time.
This is a tangled web, and hardly likely to become less so.