(Diyarbakir) - Jet fighters were heard this week roaring in the sky above this city, considered the "Kurdish capital" of Turkey. It was early Tuesday morning, and then again in the afternoon.
The day before that, Turkish F-16s and F-4s had taken off from an important military airfield near the town, and from the Malatya airbase, to bomb a location of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Hakkâri Province, near the Iraqi border, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
These airstrikes were the first since the ongoing peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government began in March 2013, after 30 years of an insurgent war that has killed some 40,000 people. It would have been hard to imagine a more flagrant breach of the ceasefire.
It was also about the worst moment for such action as, everywhere in Diyarbakir, the Turkish army is being accused of facilitating the ISIS attempt to overrun the Syrian town of Kobani, by closing the border to the Kurdish fighters who hope to defend it from the Islamist radical forces.
You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster -- a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car -- and then add, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Such is the Middle East today. The U.S. is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.
Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that’s on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet’s most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?
1. The Kurds
As student protests in Hong Kong continue, memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations naturally spring to mind. Less iconic but no less notable were the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which began as a student movement; the 2007 Venezuelan protests, which started with a group of students demanding constitutional reform; and the 1929 protests in Paris, which challenged the role of churches in education.
Of course, each student movement is unique; the one underway in Hong Kong concerns Hong Kong affairs, not widespread democratic reform in China proper. And yet all such movements share characteristics that transcend borders, making them an ideal phenomenon through which to study geopolitics.
Student protests lay bare the social and cultural layers that move beneath the surface of geopolitics, much like subsurface currents flow beneath the waves of the oceans. Human geography forms the foundation of society and thus the systems that govern it. Even if we regard the state as the highest level of global policymaking and interaction, these social undercurrents are what move the generations, ideologies and cultural changes that shape the constraints under which states operate.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden acknowledged at Harvard's Kennedy School what had already been a widespread belief: that Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia fueled a proxy Sunni-Shia war by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons to Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups. Indeed the Middle East is embroiled in an ever-deepening confessional quagmire, and many actors are complicit - from regional leaders and secular rebels to religious fanatics. Americans and Europeans cannot solve this. Only the Muslim nations that ignited jihadism can now defuse it, working with moderate Iraqis and Syrians who are directly affected by it. There's no need to defer to the feigned fury of the governments Biden rightly criticized. They are abettors, so let's instead thrust them to the forefront of the confrontation against Islamic extremism.
Under Baathist rule, Iraq's Sunni minority enjoyed wealth and status. Stripped of the privileged control of resources, after Saddam Hussein's ouster, by the newly empowered Shiite majority, Iraq's Sunnis turned to insurrection and extremism. When Shiite Iraq then allied itself with Iran, those Sunnis took in cash, guns, and a penchant for jihad from the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al Assad concentrated authority, influence, and resources among Alawites, who link themselves to Shiites confessionally, and thus to Iran regionally. Deprived of resources and rights, Syria's Sunnis launched a civil war in 2011 and, as in Iraq, deadly resources flowed mostly to the extremist-minded among them from neighboring Sunni countries.
Beyond urbane circles, Iraq and Syria lack an entrenched notion of the equality of citizens within the nation state - both countries are less than a century old. The strongest affiliations are those connected to sect, followed by regional and tribal ties. U.S. attempts at nation-building sought to overcome those identities, but they were futile in Iraq despite billions of dollars of investment.
Extremism fueled from abroad
WASHINGTON - On Sept. 23, the drill ship SAIPEM 10000 - built in South Korea at the cost of $250 million and flying the flag of the Bahamas - arrived in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus to begin exploring for gas under a license awarded to an Italian-South Korean consortium, ENI-KOGAS. The Cyprus government hopes that additional discoveries over the next 18 months in its EEZ will be sufficient to make its plans to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on the island, to condition gas for export, commercially viable.
The Turkish authorities declared that the drill ship violated Turkey's area of maritime jurisdiction and sent the Corvette Bafra to monitor operations. Another Turkish warship, the Gelibolu, engaged in planned maneuvers south of Cyprus, ostensibly to ensure maritime safety in the eastern Mediterranean. Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said that exploration would continue despite Turkey's "potential harassment."
On Oct. 3, a Turkish NAVTEX (navigational warning) notified mariners that Turkey would conduct its own seismic surveys starting on Oct. 20 in sea areas that encroach on Cyprus's EEZ. Cyprus's president, Nicos Anastasiades, asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to persuade Turkey not to violate Cyprus's EEZ. Anastasiades also announced that he would not participate in further talks with Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu aimed at ending the division of the island as long as Turkish activities, which he deemed unlawful and threatening, continued offshore.
Why has Turkey escalated tensions at this moment, when the two Cypriot leaders have begun renewed, albeit wearisome, efforts to find a solution to the division of the island? The simplest explanation, offered by observers close to the Turkish foreign ministry, is that Turkey is following its consistent policy of opposing explorations offshore pending such a solution. Others suggest that Turkey is seeking to move the offshore energy issue into the settlement talks, a step opposed by the Greek Cypriot side. Eroğlu may also wish to look tough in the run-up to the April 2015 leadership election in the northern part of the island.
Beyond the arc of the ebola epidemic, and outside the parameters of the fight against the Islamic State, a far more fundamental change to the world order is taking place. It's the rapprochement of China and Russia - an alliance of convenience animated less by common interest than a common opponent.
History shows that the Russia-China relationship has seen its share of outright conflict, but for now, they're a happy geopolitical couple. Signs are everywhere. You know something's going on when the question of a Sino-Russian entente - or will it be Russo-Chinese - is the subject of features in publications ranging from Mother Jones and The Nation to The Washington Post and The National Interest, not to mention al Jazeera. In Shanghai, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping spit vodka and toast a 30-year natural gas deal that will send Russian product to its eastern neighbor. In Beijing, "Putin: Born for Russia," a biography of Russia's president, sits on the best-seller list. No word yet on whether Xi will be photographed bench-pressing a giant panda, but this political season, the authoritarian strongman is back in style. Part of the attraction of these once-ideological cousins is hard-headed real-politik. China has no problem with a revanchist Russia claiming Crimea and biting off a good chunk of Ukraine - Beijing likely expects Moscow to return the favor as China extends its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and in the eastern provinces of India - or as China calls it, South Tibet. Broader objectives, such as the replacement of the U.S. dollar as the global currency, will take more time, and the rise of a successor currency could be a source of ruble-yuan competition. But for now, in Moscow as in Beijing, the diminishment of American global influence is a force for common if not concerted action. This is not a formal alliance. For now, it's like toddlers engaged in parallel play - the not-truly-coordinated, not-really-interactive side-by-side activities of kids sharing the same sandbox. Russia takes to bomber-buzzing along the U.S. coasts and at the edge of allied airspace, a Cold War-era maneuver, while China barrel-rolls U.S. surveillance planes in the South China Sea. Moscow and Beijing don't carry out these aerial antics in tandem. It's enough that each for its own reasons believes now is the time to brush back American geopolitical hegemony.
When clashes broke out last week in Mong Kok, a section of Hong Kong's Western Kowloon district known for its longstanding triad presence, Hong Kong's authorities were accused of colluding with organized crime rings to violently break up pro-democracy protests.
While the notion seems far-fetched, triad involvement in counter-protests against pro-democracy demonstrations raises another possibility: that of a red-black nexus between Mainland Chinese authorities and Hong Kong's criminal syndicates.
The clashes started Oct. 3 after groups of men assaulted protesters holding a pro-democracy sit-in. Fist fights resulted in head and other bodily injuries, and eight of the 19 people arrested for fighting had reputed triad connections. Legislators on the same day denounced the government. One lawmaker, James To Kun-Sun, accused the government of having "organized and orchestrated forces and even triad gangs in attempts to disperse citizens." The accusations were serious enough to draw a response from Hong Kong's assistant police commissioner, who categorically rejected allegations that police permitted triad members and thugs to assault and harass protestors.
The organized crime groups known as triads are an enduring feature of life in Hong Kong. The largest triad groups - Sun Yee On, 14K and Wo Shing Wo - are loose, cellular syndicates heavily involved both in locally-based activities such as gambling and prostitution and in transnational organized crime including drug trafficking and counterfeiting.
The words anarchy and chaos are everywhere in the news. Iraq has collapsed. Syria collapsed some time ago, as did Libya and Yemen -- even as Yemen now threatens to enter deeper depths of implosion with al-Houthi insurgents having entered and virtually surrounded the capital of Sanaa. Civil war in Lebanon periodically threatens to reignite. Egypt has required a rebirth of authoritarianism to keep order there. Afghanistan and Pakistan are never far from the abyss. Ukraine is a weak state threatened with further Russian military aggression. A wall of disease has been erected in West Africa in states that collapsed into anarchy in the late 1990s and have been limping along ever since. Nigeria faces an Islamic insurgency that is, in turn, indicative of regional tensions between Muslims in the north of the country and Christians in the south. South Sudan, midwifed into existence by Western elites, has been in a circumstance of tribal war. The Central African Republic, beset by religious violence that has killed thousands, can in no sense be called a functioning state. The same can be said of Somalia, though the worst of the threat posed by Islamic extremists there may be past. New shortages of rationed food items in Venezuela may mean more upheaval there. And there are other places around the globe -- called states in the polite language of diplomats and development experts -- that travelers' accounts away from the capital cities reveal are no such thing.
I worried aloud about such a world in a lengthy 1994 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, "The Coming Anarchy." The core of my argument was that with European empires gone, not every place in the world will necessarily have the capability to maintain functioning institutions in far-flung countrysides, and that absolute rises in population, ethnic and sectarian divides, and especially environmental degradation (i.e., water shortages) will only make such places harder to govern. My argument only seemed hopeless if you believed in the first place that elites could engineer reality from above. Of course elites can affect destiny at pivotal moments, but the actual character of large geographical swathes of the earth will only be determined by the masses living there.
But what if such chaos as we have seen in small- and some medium-sized states over time happens in larger states? What if, for example, the two dominant territorial forces on the Eurasian mainland, Russia and China, prove deeper into the 21st century to be ungovernable by centralized means? I am not predicting this. I personally do not think this will happen. But I believe it is a worthwhile thought experiment to conduct and entertain. For even the partial unraveling of Russia or China would have dramatic geopolitical effects far beyond their borders. Europe, after all, has throughout its history had its fate substantially determined by eruptions from the east -- in Russia. Southeast Asia, the Korean Peninsula and even the island nation of Japan have often had their fates substantially determined by changes in China. If we do not think the unthinkable, therefore, we are being irresponsible.
The fear of chaos has always been central to Russian history. Russia's landmass encompasses half the longitudes of the earth, with the result that central control must be oppressive merely to be effective. Adding to this sense of oppression is the perennial fear of invasion. Indeed, Russia is a land power with few natural borders in any direction. Oppressive, autocratic regimes have a tendency to foster weak institutions, since rule in such circumstances is personal rather than bureaucratic. Of course, the stories of Russia's impenetrable and inefficient bureaucracy are legion, but this reality has only caused its rulers -- czars and commissars both -- to be even more oppressive in their attempts to overcome it. To wit, the way in which President Vladimir Putin rules Russia is merely a culmination of how Russia has been ruled for more than a millennium. Putin rules in Politburo style, with a somewhat opaque circle of advisers who control all the major levers of power, military and civilian. Natural resource revenues, especially those of oil and natural gas, become tools of central authority in this case.
North Korea surprised everyone last weekend with its decision to send a senior delegation to the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in South Korea. As recently as April, after all, Pyongyang threatened to incinerate Seoul, Tokyo and Washington with nuclear weapons. In the months since, North Korea has been relatively quiescent, content to issue daily diatribes against President Park Geun-hye and conduct an unprecedented number of missile tests.
North Korea's motives for the move are unclear. North Korean leaders are probably looking for ways to overcome the country's international isolation and undermine support for international sanctions imposed after Pyongyang's repeated violations of U.N. resolutions and international law. But the delegation led by Hwang Pyong So, vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and unofficially the second-most powerful man in North Korea, may have had a more specific intent: to dispel rumors of Kim Jong Un's failing health, or of any instability within the regime. Those rumors continue to swirl because of the leader's extended absence from public view.
Kim Jong Un's provocative antics have strained relations with key ally China enough to prevent a summit meeting since Kim took power. Meanwhile, the regime's outreach to Japan has stalled, and Washington remains wary of engagement following the collapse of the 2012 Leap Day Agreement. Having worsened its diplomatic standing with so many capitals, Pyongyang probably sees Seoul as the most pliable link in the international coalition against it. According to private comments by South Korean officials, Seoul faces a tremendous amount of domestic pressure to show the North greater "creativity and flexibility" - code phrases for softening its demands for North Korea to begin complying with U.N. denuclearization resolutions prior to serious engagement.
Progressive South Koreans are always eager to resume dialogue without conditions. But more important, senior members of the ruling, conservative Saenuri Party, as well as the conservative media, have begun advocating the removal of sanctions imposed after North Korea sank a South Korean navy ship in 2010, killing 46 sailors.
The Muslim Middle East is increasingly divided along sectarian and ideological lines. In addition to the violent conflicts that make the nightly news, two "cold wars" are simmering in the region: one between Sunni and Shiite-dominated regimes, and another that pits Sunni states against each other. The two cold wars also impact the region's sole non-Muslim-majority state, Israel, and will influence how the ISIS threat might be addressed.
Saudi Arabia, the center of Sunni Islam, and Iran, a Shiite theocracy, are the opposing lead powers in the "Sunni-Shia Cold War." It's a sectarian cold war that has turned hot in places - most notably Syria. But Sunni-Shiite tensions reach beyond Syria, into Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia with its repressed Shiite minority. Sunni fears of a "Shiite Crescent" stretching across the region have led the Saudis to take a strong stand against Iran, trying to check its power. Ordinary Sunnis and Shiites don't necessarily buy into this rigid us-versus-them dichotomy, but the regimes' leaders and hard core supporters do.
The Sunni Muslim states are divided into opposing camps in a second, "Sunni Cold War." Here, the divide looks a bit different, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan on one side opposing radical Sunni Islamist movements, and Qatar and Turkey on the other side offering support to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist fighters in Syria and Libya, and Hamas in Gaza.
Turkey's position on the Islamist side of the Sunni Cold War fits with the agenda of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The increasingly authoritarian Erdogan is pursuing twin goals of restoring Turkey's Great Power status from its Ottoman Empire days and transforming the nation into a leader of the Sunni world's Islamist camp.
The hearing for Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief designate, in the European Parliament on Oct. 6 was a deeply ambiguous event for all foreign policy observers. Not that ambiguity is a scarce commodity in Brussels; foreign policy itself is a fundamentally dual-faced phenomenon in a town where institutions are strong on trade and development but have almost zero executive power in classic diplomacy and crisis management.
The drama of EU foreign policy stems from the two conflicting standards by which the policy can be measured. The first is the specific logic of the internal mechanics of the Brussels bubble - what is possible. The second is the necessity created by the outside world - what is needed. The gap between the two is not unique to Brussels, of course, but Brussels is uniquely unable to bridge it intelligently and productively.
Held against the first standard, Mogherini delivered a very convincing performance. She was relaxed and focused, clearly at home in this policy field. She sounded natural and completely unrobotic in her replies, even throwing a few sprinkles of charm into the mix here and there.
She improvised freely by occasionally adding a fundamental thought or a nugget of wisdom to her replies to technical questions. She had a broad register in the three languages she used (Italian, English, and French), which enabled her to cloak the unavoidable platitudes in a sound that was her own.
In June 1919, aboard an Allied warship en route to Paris, sat Damat Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vizier of a crumbling Ottoman Empire. The elderly statesman, donning an iconic red fez and boasting an impeccably groomed mustache, held in his hands a memorandum that he was to present to the Allied powers at the Quai d'Orsay. The negotiations on postwar reparations started five months earlier, but the Ottoman delegation was prepared to make the most of its tardy invitation to the talks. As he journeyed across the Mediterranean that summer toward the French shore, Damat Ferid mentally rehearsed the list of demands he would make to the Allied powers during his last-ditch effort to hold the empire together.
He began with a message, not of reproach, but of inculpability: "Gentlemen, I should not be bold enough to come before this High Assembly if I thought that the Ottoman people had incurred any responsibility in the war that has ravaged Europe and Asia with fire and sword." His speech was followed by an even more defiant memorandum, denouncing any attempt to redistribute Ottoman land to the Kurds, Greeks and Armenians, asserting: "In Asia, the Turkish lands are bounded on the south by the provinces of Mosul and Diyarbakir, as well as a part of Aleppo as far as the Mediterranean." When Damat Ferid's demands were presented in Paris, the Allies were in awe of the gall displayed by the Ottoman delegation. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George regarded the presentation as a "good joke," while U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said he had never seen anything more "stupid." They flatly rejected Damat Ferid's apparently misguided appeal -- declaring that the Turks were unfit to rule over other races, regardless of their common Muslim identity -- and told him and his delegation to leave. The Western powers then proceeded, through their own bickering, to divide the post-Ottoman spoils.
Under far different circumstances today, Ankara is again boldly appealing to the West to follow its lead in shaping policy in Turkey's volatile Muslim backyard. And again, Western powers are looking at Turkey with incredulity, waiting for Ankara to assume responsibility for the region by tackling the immediate threat of the Islamic State with whatever resources necessary, rather than pursuing a seemingly reckless strategy of toppling the Syrian government. Turkey's behavior can be perplexing and frustrating to Western leaders, but the country's combination of reticence in action and audacity in rhetoric can be traced back to many of the same issues that confronted Istanbul in 1919, beginning with the struggle over the territory of Mosul.
The Turkish Fight for Mosul
A specter haunts the fast-aging "New American Century": the possibility of a future Beijing-Moscow-Berlin strategic trade and commercial alliance. Let's call it the BMB.
Its likelihood is being seriously discussed at the highest levels in Beijing and Moscow, and viewed with interest in Berlin, New Delhi, and Tehran. But don't mention it inside Washington's Beltway or at NATO headquarters in Brussels. There, the star of the show today and tomorrow is the new Osama bin Laden: Caliph Ibrahim, aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive, self-appointed beheading prophet of a new mini-state and movement that has provided an acronym feast -- ISIS/ISIL/IS -- for hysterics in Washington and elsewhere.
No matter how often Washington remixes its Global War on Terror, however, the tectonic plates of Eurasian geopolitics continue to shift, and they're not going to stop just because American elites refuse to accept that their historically brief "unipolar moment" is on the wane. For them, the closing of the era of "full spectrum dominance," as the Pentagon likes to call it, is inconceivable. After all, the necessity for the indispensable nation to control all space -- military, economic, cultural, cyber, and outer -- is little short of a religious doctrine. Exceptionalist missionaries don't do equality. At best, they do "coalitions of the willing" like the one crammed with "over 40 countries" assembled to fight ISIS/ISIL/IS and either applauding (and plotting) from the sidelines or sending the odd plane or two toward Iraq or Syria.
NATO, which unlike some of its members won't officially fight Jihadistan, remains a top-down outfit controlled by Washington. It's never fully bothered to take in the European Union (EU) or considered allowing Russia to "feel" European. As for the Caliph, he's just a minor diversion. A postmodern cynic might even contend that he was an emissary sent onto the global playing field by China and Russia to take the eye of the planet's hyperpower off the ball.