Q: What do you think Kremlin has in mind in displaying such a harsh reaction to risk a total breakdown of its relations with Turkey?
As Putin put it, the shoot down was a 'stab in the back'. What would you suggest Russia do?
Q: But Turkey said it wouldn’t down the jet had it known it was Russian. Do you think Turkey’s aggression was deliberate?
I am not impressed by such a weak claim. The Russians said there was no warning communication (perhaps there was but it was not intercepted), the Turks claim there were lots of warnings, which suggests they must have known who it was. Declarations of innocence sound pretty lame. Who else could it have been? ISIS doesn't have military planes.
Q: After the jet crisis, the hashtag WWIII immediately became a globally trending topic on Twitter and since then, tons of articles discussing the possibility of a new world war is flooding the media. What do you think the chances are for that another globe-sized confrontation may be looming in the offing?
My first thought was 'Sarajevo 1914', a foolhardy provocation which indeed could topple into war. I am still shuddering. For the first time in my life, I genuinely fear that a world conflict could explode. Notice, like WWI and WWII, the location is conveniently far from Washington.
Q: With the direct involvement of the Western alliance and Russia in the Syrian civil war, Iran’s expanding influence in the region and the Arab Spring, the cards seem to have been reshuffled. What does the Syrian quagmire promise for the future given the most recent conditions?
The 2011 Arab Spring initially looked hopeful for the region. Tunisia and Egypt threw off odious dictators with hardly a shot fired. But it soon soured, with no consensus on a "new world", and entrenched elites that were able to reassert control, electorally in the case of Tunisia, and through a coup in Egypt. Bahrain and Yemen's 'springs' dragged out and were undermined without any real change. Civil war resulted in both, with the Saudis and Americans supporting the old Sunni elites against the Shia, leaving an ongoing legacy of anger and, in the case of Yemen, violence and war.
The West gambled on overthrowing Libya's dictator themselves, counting on their ability to move in quickly, restructure a dysfunctional society and incorporate it into the western order. That gamble was hardly a success. The state-run oil company has been caught in the middle of a conflict that has divided the country between an internationally recognized government and an Islamist militia that controls the capital of Tripoli. Attacks by ISIS, worker strikes and sabotage of facilities continue. Production is still 70 percent below pre-2011 levels.
But the western imperialist reflex for adventure and conquest, for making the world fit its game plan, is nonetheless being followed in Syria, where the hope was that Assad would follow the fate of earlier anti-imperialists Najibullah in Afghanistan in 1996 and Gaddafi in Libya in 2012, and be strung up or otherwise murdered, and that the Muslim insurgents could be brought into line.
Q: ISIL is the common pretext for all foreign powers to justify their intervention into the Middle East. Some experts have reasons to believe that Russia, the US, France, Turkey or others have different priorities to pursuit and are not really committed to exterminate ISIL. What do you think?
All the world's a stage, but in this case, the actors are playing from different scripts, all thinking they are also the director. The purported director, the US, has been planning the demise of the Assads (pere and now fils) for decades as, according to Israel Shamir, "a mopping-up campaign against the states that sided with the Soviet Union in the Cold War." France has fond memories of Syria as a former protectorate. Israel wants to Somalise Syria, in accord with its Yinon Plan. It wants a weak Sunni regime between its enemies Iran and Hezbollah. The Saudis want to eliminate Bashar, as he is friendly with Iran. They don't approve of an Alawite ruling a Muslim country. Russia saw this sordid play unfolding and refused to watch it proceed to its 'happy ending', as happened in Libya.
Q: Is this a new version of imperialism?
This is indeed a new imperialism, what I call postmodern imperialism in my book of that name, one where local actors are intended to act out roles that meet the director's needs.
Here is a quote that provides an understanding of the present 'great game': “With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in 1989–91 and the beginning of what I call Great Game III, the two regions—the Middle East and Central Asia—once again came together as a new Silk Road. But instead of being united under Islam or the Mongols, today it is largely under the sway of the US and NATO. US control there means containing Russia, China and Iran, the dream of British strategists in GGI and of American strategists in the earlier Great Games. It is also the location of most of the world’s petrochemical resources, from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf in the south to Kazakhstan in the north and Iran in the east. This, of course, might explain why the US is so keen to take and keep control of it and has gambled its all in pursuit of this goal over the past decade. The three major wars conducted by the US in the past decade—Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003)—all lie on this legendary Silk Road.
“Britain, the US and NATO have no business invading any of these countries. Rather, in any peaceful scenario for the region, it is local powers that must come together to promote their regional economic well-being and security. Further wars would be a tragedy for all concerned. But such wars are far from Washington, and are increasingly being fought from computer control panels in such unassuming suburban locations as MacDill Air Force Base Florida, home of the US Central Command, rather than by ground troops in the region’s hostile deserts and mountains. And the forces abetting war are not rational in any meaningful sense of the word.”
Q: Do you think Turkey is a proxy to serve for the US and NATO interests in the region?
I didn't think this when the AKP came to power and relations with Israel were cut. Relations with Iran were improving and it looked like Turkey was forging a new foreign policy. But relations with Iran were cooled, and Turkey's participation in the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 and Erdogan's about-face on Assad in 2012 certainly make it look like a return to the pre-AKP policy of following the US.
Q: Some accuse Turkey of misinterpreting the Arab Spring movements and basing its priorities on wrong assumptions and hence it must be held responsible for the tragedies in Syria. Do you share such approaches? What were the biggest mistakes Turkey committed in its Syrian policy?
The other main actor is of course Turkey. Turkey’s President Erdogan wants a moderate Islamist in Damascus, which is what the Arab Spring was all about originally, but is no longer. Now there is little remaining anywhere, from Tunisia to Yemen, that corresponds to the hopeful intent. In Syria, Turkey's actions look more like a plan to pursue a neo-Ottoman vision for the Middle East.
Turkey's biggest mistake was gambling on a quick collapse of the Syrian regime, magically resuscitating a mostly moribund Muslim Brotherhood, which had been wiped out by Bashar's father Hafez in 1982, after a similar armed uprising. With that in mind, and with the army securely behind Bashar, Erdogan should have realized that foreign manipulation would not lead to an easy victory. He should have stayed out of the NATO plan to overthrow the legitimate government. He should have realized that the Syrian Islamists were weak, and that any government installed by the US would have no interest in tutelage from Turkey. He should not have betrayed a friend to please his NATO 'allies'.
Everything that has happened since is a case of Turkey's sins coming back to haunt it. Turkey was more annoyed than the rest when the plot got tangled, as it was carrying the brunt of fallout, housing the refugees, supplying the fighters with weapons, and now taking the flak from Russia. The furious Turks shot down the Russian planes in November in order to express their anger. They counted on hiding behind NATO's skirt to prevent any tit-for-tat from Russia.
Q: Was this Turkey’s return to its traditional alliances? It suddenly remembered that it was still a NATO member and resumed talks with the EU. Simultaneously, its relations with
Israel have started to thaw and a resurrection of the diplomatic ties may follow any moment. How do you assess this dramatic reversal in the Turkish foreign policy?
I don't see a dramatic reversal. The only change in the past decade was to cut ties with Israel, a principled and courageous move, one that inspired millions of people around the world. But yes, Erdogan is toeing the NATO line more openly now. I can't say precisely why. Perhaps in the hope that the NATO-backed war in Syria will leave a weakened state that is beholden to Turkey.
Q: Should we perceive the “stab in the back” metaphor in this perspective? What does it mean in the current conjuncture?
This "stab in the back" as Putin called it is a real game changer. This is the first shoot-down of a Russian warplane by a NATO member state since the Korean War, and must have been okayed in Washington. And it is not the only "stab in the back" as Putin explained. Bashar received one, as did Gaddafi. And in a new 'twist', Russia has revealed to the world that large quantities of oil were entering Turkey from ISIS-held areas, providing the jihadist group with significant funding.
So Turkey too had adopted the imperial policy of both supporting and fighting Islamists, as the need arises. Not what you might expect from a self-proclaimed Islamist. The shadow of Ataturk is hanging over Turkey. He tried very hard to destroy Turkey's Islamic heritage. He didn't succeed, but he 'poisoned the well', creating a western-style nationalism that is responsible for the present crisis.
But the story is not finished. Afghanistan and Syria have proved to be the undoing of the postmodern imperial play; the former, because the US-imposed government has no credibility, and the latter, as the dictator was not so unpopular as Libya's and has support from Russia and Iran. Russia's return to the international scene means a new post-Sykes-Picot Middle East is taking shape, a "new world". The shoot-down of the Russian plane was the final touch on the new ending. Neither Afghanistan nor Syria will find peace soon in it, but there are likely scenarios. In each case, they involve a long period of instability.
Q: What was the Arab Spring all about and looking back to the past, what do you think went wrong?
First, the Arab Spring in Egypt (the main actor in the Arab Spring. each case is different) was/is an Islamic Awakening, as confirmed in five elections/ referenda in Egypt, where Islamists consistently won two-thirds of the vote in the freest elections in any country in recent times. Money was not a significant factor thanks to limits on candidates’ financing (no corporate or Super PACs a la US, or foreign donations), the brainwashing of the old order no longer worked, and the Mubarak thugs who stuffed ballot boxes were hiding in their holes. We can only envy the Egyptians.
The strategy of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) for 80 years has been to patiently build alternative social structures to the corrupt ‘soft state’ (especially in education, health, charity), and eventually overthrowing the old corrupt order peacefully through the ballot box. Syria did not have this solid history of Islamist social practice. Then to work with other forces, both left and right, to usher in a new Islamic order based on their grassroots experience, where—just as in the first Islamic state under Muhammad in Medina—all facets of society would have their place, where laws and government would conform with sharia, as confirmed by senior Islamic scholars. Foreign relations were shifting towards a more confrontational stance with Israel, and more cooperation with other Islamic governments and movements, in particular Iran, but throughout the Muslim world. President Morsi’s first stop was Saudi Arabia, which initially promised support. Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad sent a whopping $8 billion in aid ($2 billion of which was since returned by the coup-makers).
The secular elite’s intent in Egypt's Arab Spring soon became clear. Notables such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sobahi initially made cautious overtures to the Islamists, as their own lack of popular support was also clear from the start. They needed the MB much more than the latter needed them. But when they realized that they would never gain more than a handful of seats in any free elections, and when the MB made clear they were no shrinking violets and would pursue an agenda inspired by the Islamic state founded by Muhammad in Medina the seventh century, they ‘lost it’, betrayed the revolution and threw their lot with the Mubarakite establishment, preferring the neoliberal nightmare of yesteryear, where they could indulge their petty privileges and enjoy their cultural hegemony.
The military’s intent was unclear, flipping back and forth between their traditional thuggishness and flagrant violations of human rights (openly killing Copts as Maspero in October 2011, disbanding parliament and stripping the president of meaningful power in June 2012) and showing signs of genuine interest in establishing a more democratic order (supervising elections, even bowing to the popular will after Morsi’s election, when Morsi retired the bungling Field Marshall Tantawi and appointed what they hoped were less compromised generals). The army only supported the initial uprising in January 2011 because they were furious with Mubarak’s intent to put his son Gamal on the throne, inaugurating a pseudo-monarchy a la Saudi Arabia. The police were more consistently against the revolution—basically refusing to work at all after the initial uprising, determined that the old order be restored, even if minus their beloved patron, the now geriatric Mubarak. Syria's military was and is solidly behind Assad, in sharp contrast.
Egypt’s ‘allies’, the US, Saudis et al were also fence-sitters, wondering what the MB would actually do. Could it be pressured by the economic crisis, the noisy secular spoilers and the still powerful old guard, with its stranglehold on the economy, into acting as a new face for neocolonialism? Would it accept the pillars of the old order—support for Israel, the craven Arab monarchies, and the global capitalist market system, and continued hostility to the only genuine Islamic government (Iran)? If they win, Syria's Islamists would be helpless pawns of NATO and Turkey and would not do any of this.
We will never know just how far these tentative moves would have developed, as the military put an end to this experiment in Islamic democracy, egged on by the secularists in open collusion with the still powerful Mubarakite establishment. The coup put an end to the dreams of the Islamists—except for the pro-Saudi Salafi, who actually backed the coup and now are angling (mentored by their Saudi sponsors) to steal the MB’s supporters, to serve as a quietist pseudo-Islamic facade for the secularists/ military, so essential to the US/ Israel/ Saudi Arabia. These are the 'Islamists' that presumably would take over power in Syria.
So, was the MB strategy wrong? Was Margaret Thatcher right: There Is No Alternative? Has history come to an end with Bush senior’s New World Order? Should the MB put their Qurans on the bottom shelf along with all the other (now irrelevant) religious texts?
Q: And what does Egypt's experience have to teach us in Syria's crisis?
First, the military, if strong, controls the shots.
Second, unless the dictator is despised by everyone, as long as he has the army behind him, his hold on power is strong. As the Prophet stated when asked, “Shall we confront them with swords?” the Prophet replied: "No, as long as they establish prayer among you. If you find something hateful from them, you should hate their actions but not withdraw your hand from obedience." (Sahih Muslim)
Third, a genuine Islamist revolution is possible, but only with a strong, experienced group that is in place. And peacefully. Even then, outside pressures and a craven secular establishment will do anything to undermine it. In other words, Syria's own baleful history did not give much hope for an Islamist victory, and now the alternative to Assad is the genuine terrorist brand that the West so loves to label 'Islamist', or at best the pro-Saudi Salafi.
Q: Is Muslim Brotherhood (MB) feeling betrayed by Turkey, which has been falsely promising support while encouraging them to disregard the public resentment against their policies?
Erdogan was brave and correct to salute Egyptians with the Rabia sign. The move to make peace with Sisi is a cynical one, but a routine move in the ugly world of power politics. Another bitter disappointment, but understandable.
However, I don't have to live in the poisonous atmosphere of world politics, full of intrigue and back-stabbing. It is easy for me to criticize. Turkey is a divided society, with a strong and anti-Islamist establishment, and under intense pressure from the US and Europe. Obviously, Erdogan must make compromises to survive, and in the interests of domestic stability.
Q: Saudi Arabia’s desire to become the leader of the Sunni world and its struggle against the spread of Iran’s influence is well-known. How should we understand the deepening alliance between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar from this perspective?
Any alliance with Saudi Arabia is a pact with the devil. The Saudis will be happy to stab you in the back when it suits them. Qatar wants a pipeline. They are both against friendship with Iran, which is the only country genuinely supporting the Palestinian cause. Turkey was too, but is doing nothing to actively support the Palestinians at present.
From Books of Interest
Connect with Eric Walberg
Eric's From Postmodernism to Postsecularism is available here
Eric's Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics
and the Great Games is available here
Eric's Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics
and the Great Games is available here
Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.
He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.