Category Archives: Middle East

Strategic Heights

On the 21st of March 2019, with a characteristic lack of warning, the President of the United States stunned allies and adversaries alike by announcing — on Twitter — the United States should “fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” The surprise move reversed 52 years of US policy toward the contested area and prompted emergency meetings in capitals across the globe. Within minutes, a storm of diplomatic protests from around the world reiterated support for a 1981 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 497) that specifically rejects an Israeli move to annex the Golan.

Not surprisingly, Syria vowed to retake its strategic terrain by “all means available”, a proclamation vigorously supported by Syria’s traditional backers, Russia and Iran. They were not alone, however. Even America’s allies rejected the move, citing principles of customary international law and warning the President it could decrease stability in the Middle East and have ripple effects elsewhere. As the President tweeted, the Golan Heights is strategically important and its annexation will have strategic consequences.

Trump Golan Tweet
President Trump forecasted his move to recognize Israeli rule in the strategic Golan Heights.

Strategic History

The topography and hydrology of the Golan has divided empires, fixed boundaries, and concentrated warfare since Biblical times. When one considers its history, it is easy to understand the Golan’s intense strategic importance to the security and stability of the greater Middle East. Shaped like a bowl surrounding the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights provides a significant percentage of Israel’s fresh water. The terrain feature rises rapidly east from the Sea of Galilee to a ridge that towers 1000 feet over the Transjordanian Plateau and provides a commanding view across southern Syria to the ancient Damascus-Amman Road. Whoever holds the Golan Heights commands all north-south movement in a significant part of the Middle East.

The first Jewish communities settled in the Golan in the 6th Century BCE but later fell under Seleucid rule after the partition of Alexander the Great’s empire in the 3rd Century BCE. The Jews regained their independence after a revolt only to be conquered and crushed by the Roman 10th Legion under Vespasian in the winter of 66 A.D.. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area changed hands in step with the ebb and flow of fortunes in Constantinople. First the Byzantines, then the Ottomans ruled the Golan until their defeat in the First World War placed the area under the British Mandate. The British ceded it to France a year later and Syria inherited it at the end of the Mandate in 1944.

The British decision to cede the Golan Heights to France left Palestine without a defensible northeastern frontier. When Israel declared independence a few years later, it found itself in a vulnerable position with a modern Arab army in a strong position to threaten Israel’s main source of water. The Six-Day War in 1967 provided the opportunity for Tel Aviv to address the vulnerability by seizing the Golan. At the time, the United States joined the world in calling for an Israeli withdrawal, a policy every President since has supported. When Israel attempted to annex the area in 1981, the Reagan administration went even farther, joining the UN in declaring the move “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Golan Proclamation
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, March 25, 2019. Source credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Elsewhere Matters

President Trump’s move to recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights is a historically significant break from the policies of every US President since Lyndon Johnson. Though there will be immediate impacts on the stability of the Middle East, international law and the overlapping interests of regional stakeholders will cause ripple effects on US interests in unexpected places.

When Russia employed ‘hybrid warfare’ to invade and annex Crimea in early 2014, the US response was fairly robust and focused. Aside from a frenzy of bilateral military exercises in the Baltic states and Poland, US messaging on the legality of Russia’s move battered Moscow with principles of international law. The United States specifically cited Article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits the use of force in territorial disputes. More importantly, perhaps, the White House invoked the principle that states have an obligation ‘not to recognize as legal’ the acquisition or occupation of territory resulting from aggression or the threat or use of force. The Obama Administration argued at the time that Crimea was taken by force and therefore the United States had an obligation to reject its annexation by Russia.

Recognition of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights effectively abandons this legal principle as a basis for US foreign policy, putting the US position at risk in Crimea and damaging other, longer-term US interests. The occupation of Northern Cyprus for example, seized by Turkey in 1974, is still not recognized internationally. President Trump’s capitulation on the Golan may give Turkey a sense that now is a good time to push for annexation of Northern Cyprus. Timing aside, such a move could threaten peace with Greece and destabilize NATO. Further afield, the principle of non-recognition protected the Baltic states for 51 years and guaranteed support for their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Already nervous about Russian territorial ambitions, Baltic leaders are concerned abandonment of the principle now could encourage Russian ambitions in ways detrimental to numerous NATO member states. One can imagine similar issues arising in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, and perhaps even provoking sovereignty questions in US territories conquered during World War II or the Spanish-American War.

Some argue changing the status of the Golan Heights will not significantly affect the situation on the ground. However, the political narrative will have global consequences as states with territorial disputes rush to take advantage of America’s recent flexibility with international law. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States is the principal benefactor of an international system that affords states a privileged position on questions of sovereignty. Eroding the legal principles that underpin those positions weakens our foreign policy. Doing so in pursuit of short-term gains is the exact opposite of principled action and certainly not the height of strategic thinking.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC

The Hudaydah Trap

For the last 14 years, the war in Yemen has taken a brutal toll on the innocent population of one of the world’s poorest countries. Though an extension of long simmering tribal conflicts, the war is in some ways a proxy battle between the Iranian-sponsored Houthis and the Saudi-led Coalition of Sunni Arab states. Backed by American weaponry, intelligence, logistics, and political top cover, the Coalition has almost managed to completely surround the last Houthi stronghold in Sanaa, Yemen’s traditional capital. In what amounts to an operational siege of a fortified enclave, the port of Hudaydah is both the key to victory and the final lifeline for millions of Yemenis caught in the middle and slowly starving to death. Despite the emergence of dramatic images of malnourished children in the final stages of starvation, Yemen has raised very little public attention from the Pentagon…until last week.

Yemen Conflict
The Saudi-led Coalition has the Houthis surrounded. The fall of Hudaydah will complete the double envelopment and may end the war.

In a stunning reversal, the Secretaries of Defense and State announced that the United States would demand a ceasefire in Yemen. Communicated simultaneously, the demand came with an aggressive 30-day timeline. With Coalition forces massing for a final assault on Hudaydah, the timing of the announcement comes on the eve of what looks to be an irrevocable turning point in Washington’s favor. Some believe the curious timing makes sense given the dire humanitarian situation, but others point out that none of the warring factions are anywhere close to a negotiable position. A peace process, they suggest, is not only doomed at this point, but will likely prolong, and possibly magnify, the escalating humanitarian catastrophe. The opposing positions illustrate the intensity of the ethical dilemma Yemen presents to the world; is it better to stop the fighting or just get it over with?

Tragic Yemen

Experts among the humanitarian community say famine is a uniquely avoidable disaster but, once triggered, it cannot be easily reversed. Suffering from years of privation, currency collapse, and the world’s worst Cholera epidemic, Yemen rides the famine tripwire in every measurable way. Jeremy Konyndyk, recent Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, believes an assault on Hudaydah will plunge the fragile region into the abyss, if it’s not already there. With some justification, he thinks this realization may be the basis for Washington’s policy shift in favor of ceasefire.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 15.59.18
Jeremy Konyndyk, once Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, believes an assault on Hudaydah will trigger a famine in Yemen. His opinion on this matter is authoritative.

It is very easy to see the moral value of stopping the fighting to save the starving children of Yemen. However, the effectiveness of that course is as ambiguous as the political and military vagaries of the war in Yemen itself. Dave Harden, a respected diplomat that recently led US efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen (and briefly Konyndyk’s boss) takes a dim view of the prospects for peace.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 16.20.23
Dave Harden believes the combatants are not ready for peace.

If Mr. Harden is correct, which seems likely, it is doubtful a ceasefire will last very long or have a measurable positive impact on the conditions that lead to famine. Worse, a respite could breathe new life into a failing Houthi defense and crystallize the war into years of intractable stalemate. The resultant mortality of this outcome will eclipse anything Yemen is likely to suffer if Houthi resistance collapses quickly.

Both Sides

Hudaydah and the spiraling famine in North Yemen present a dilemma in the truest sense. Though it is impossible to calculate just how much good can come from a ceasefire, it is also impossible to know how quickly and effectively the fall of Hudaydah will put an end to the war. The answer will be lost in complex analysis of relative combat power, skill of the commanders, tactical geography, and the unknowable will to win inherent in the opposing forces. There is simply no way to determine which is the ethically superior option from the purely utilitarian standpoint of: what is the most good for the most people?

Rather than making an ethical choice, the United States is shrewdly playing both sides. Calling for a ceasefire widely expected to fail makes it easier to blame one’s opponent for the disappointing result. Though this sounds intensely cynical, it can have the practical outcome of weakening Houthi/Iranian resolve, eroding international support, and may increase their need to make concessions. Giving the Coalition thirty days to implement it, however, encourages an attempt to settle the matter. Though calling for a ceasefire is probably the only politically acceptable option in this gamble, with Coalition troops already advancing into the outskirts of the city, the Hudaydah trap has been sprung, and there is no going back. History will balance the intensity of resultant suffering against the durability and justice — if any — of the political outcome.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

 

 

 

 

 

For additional information concerning the war in Yemen please reference the following articles:

“A hint of hope for a ceasefire in Yemen.”

“Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death will shake up the war in Yemen?

 

Green is the New Black: Making a Gas Cartel

As the disastrous civil war in Syria stretches into its sixth year, the conflict is beginning to take shape as a struggle for influence between Russia and the United States and their respective proxies. The Russian interest in Syria, initially limited to protecting the naval base in Tartus and keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, is now widely believed to have a regional and global power dynamic. Russia controls 26% of proven global natural gas reserves and has long been frustrated by its inability to export to customers other than the European Union (EU) and NATO member states. Not only does this geographic reality leave Russia dependent upon a single block of customers that has access to other suppliers, but it limits Moscow’s ability to influence politics with its overwhelming market share. In late 2015 however, the Russian military mission in Syria began to present other opportunities to exploit the politics and the pipelines that crisscross that war-torn region, thus giving birth to the prospect of a new natural gas cartel.

The global energy market is changing. Traditional, fossil-based energy supplies like coal and oil are becoming increasingly expensive to find and extract. Political turmoil in the Middle East coupled with popular pressure to address climate change, make natural gas a more attractive option for future energy needs, particularly in Europe. With average global gas consumption likely to increase approximately 1.6% annually until 2040, Europe needs a strategy to secure supplies from beyond the Russian monopoly. This is not a minor concern in Brussels. Moscow’s 2014 closure of gas pipelines into Ukraine highlighted the linkage of Europe’s energy future to Russia’s political ambitions, yet EU sanctions against the Russian oil and gas industry are seen as a delayed and ineffective western response. Europe, like Russia, now has its eye on massive natural gas reserves in the Middle East.

A Layered Strategy

The war in Syria is a catalyst for strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran. By bringing together the combined weight of their massive natural gas reserves, Moscow and Tehran would be able to influence Europe in powerful ways. If they bring Qatar’s reserves into the deal they could create an OPEC-like gas cartel with control of 60% of the world’s reserves; a frightening degree of dominance over the increasingly strategic commodity. However, there are many geographic and political obstacles to this ambition, and it is in these spaces the Russian strategy is taking shape.

Russia Natural Gas
Together, Russia, Iran, and Qatar possess more natural gas reserves than the rest of the world combined. Photo credit: http://www.energybc.ca/naturalgas.html

Distribution of Iranian reserves to Europe depends on the outcome of conflicts in Syria and Iraq and on the political independence of Kurdistan. These countries contain much of the existing regional natural gas pipeline transmission capacity. Stabilization of those conflicts presents an opportunity for positive Russian engagement with Turkey and forms the basis for a recent trilateral accord signed in Kazakhstan between Russia, Turkey, and Iran aimed at ending the Syrian civil war; an agreement made possible by an expansion of the Russian military mission there. Turkey, with an intense interest in the political future of Kurdistan, plays a unique role by controlling access to many of the natural gas pipelines aimed at Europe. More importantly perhaps, Turkey is the southernmost outpost of NATO and hosts the important US military base at Incirlik.

The notable absence of the EU, the US, and the United Nations from the Kazakhstan talks reflects an important aspect of Russia’s strategy: limiting western—particularly US—influence in the region. Though Iran is an enthusiastic and powerful ally in this endeavor, strategy alone is not enough as the US has some very real ties to the region. American bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar form a defensive network that bolsters the political stability of many of Iran’s rivals; not the least of which are Israel and Saudi Arabia. As mentioned, Turkey’s own security is still based largely on NATO, and most of the Gulf Emirates are completely dependent on American hard power for their defense. Given robust and longstanding support for this political-military structure in Washington, it is not surprising that Russia and Iran are exacerbating tensions between all of America’s allies in the region, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Russia and Iran are the unseen beneficiaries of fractured relations between the two important US allies. Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, is hardly an ally of Qatar, though enduring cultural links exist between the two states that can form a basis for renewed affinity. There is evidence Russia is encouraging an economic tie as well through business deals between Rosneft, the integrated oil company controlled by Moscow, and the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). It is here, where Russian, Iranian, and Qatari interests converge, that the possibility of a joint pipeline project begins to make sense.

Russia Gas Cartel
The eventual route from the Persian Gulf South Pars/North Dome gas field (red region, bottom right) to Turkey is of strategic importance in the Middle East. Photo credit: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7421h.ct002142/ (pipeline routes added by Chris Golightly)

Overland transport of gas reserves from Qatar’s North Dome gas field will converge at the existing terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey, but could take several different paths. While Russia prefers a pipeline (IGAT-IX, above in black) along the Iran-Iraq border, the US backs a route that transits Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and possibly Israel and Syria. Whatever the eventual route, stability in Syria is vital for security of the entire coastal strip. Achievement of the Russian design depends upon three key elements: politically isolating the United States, fracturing its allies, and stabilizing the Syrian conflict on terms that are favorable to the Kremlin.

Though Russia clearly hopes to position itself as the lynchpin in the arrangement, neither Moscow nor Tehran possess the technology required to construct IGAT-IX or the high-end LNG export facilities required at its terminus. For that they require easing of western sanctions that currently prohibit US or European oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil from sharing technology. The framework for this collaboration already exists. In August 2011, Russian President Putin, and the Executive Chairman of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, met Rex Tillerson in Sochi when he was still CEO of Exxon-Mobil. There, the three signed co-operation agreements for ten joint ventures, including drilling projects in the Russian Arctic, exploration in the Black Sea, a joint Arctic research center, and substantial options for Rosneft to invest in projects in the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. Consequently between 2011 and 2013, Exxon-Mobil became the partner of choice for Rosneft and now puts Russia and Iran high on the priority list for exploration. The reciprocal cooperation and the elevation of Tillerson to Secretary of State increases the expectation that sanctions will eventually be lifted, or at least not increased. Already, the bill for increased sanctions against Russia, which includes prohibitions against certain dealings with its oil and gas industry, is hung up in the House of Representatives due in no small part to efforts by the US oil lobby.

The Cost of Inaction

The prospect of Russia and Iran controlling 60% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves aims right at the heart of European security. Addressing it will require energy-specific strategies that not only reduce demand through the use of renewable sources, but also political solutions that guarantee supply by stabilizing the Middle East. With European unity hamstrung by homegrown nationalist movements, and the United States distracted by an endless series of domestic political dramas, it is difficult for either to formulate such strategies for the long-term. While the West limits its efforts in the Middle East to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Russia and Iran are playing a much broader game that will ultimately be more effective.

The potential for a tightening of gas supply options is a sober call for Europe to overcome domestic distractions and concentrate on a comprehensive energy security strategy; one that incorporates development and commercialization of a suite of renewable energy technologies. This should include solar and offshore wind, advances in nuclear fusion, offshore methane gas exploration, and clean, dry fracking. Until Europe reduces its reliance on Russian gas and takes measures to ensure political stability in the Middle East, there will be a risk of unwanted influence from Moscow and continued uncertainty.


Chris Golightly is an Independent Consulting Engineer specializing in offshore renewable energy, based in Brussels. Prior to 2010 he worked in the Oil & Gas industry.