From Istanbul To Pyongyang: Connecting The Geopolitical Dots
BMI View: The 'crises' in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and the Korean Peninsula are all connected in a complex geopolitical matrix. For now, the informal Damascus-Tehran-Pyongyang anti-Western 'axis' appears firm, but it rests on shaky foundations. Meanwhile, the US setbacks in the Middle East are being offset by the cultivation of new allies in East Asia.
Several recent developments highlight the interconnectedness of even t s in Eurasia, and suggest that the informal anti-Western 'axis' comprising Syria, Iran, and North Korea is making geopolitical gains. This will cause further complications for the US's foreign policy.
By early June, it was being widely reported that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad had made significant military gains against rebel forces , and appeared to have retaken control of the crucial town of Qusayr. At the same time, World Tribune, a US-based national security affairs website, citing Middle East Newsline, reported that Assad was winning the battle for the hearts and minds of Syrians, with many of his countrymen hitherto opposed to his rule having changed their minds over the past six months. World Tribune cited an unpublished study by NATO alleging that 70% of Syrians now back Assad. ( BMI could not verify these claims , or find an alternative news source on this .) Also noteworthy were reports that around a dozen North Korean military officers are on the ground in Syria, providing logistical and tactical advice to the regime. Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced massive protests against his leadership in multiple cities across the country, which, if sustained, could damage Turkey's appeal as an investment destination and complicate Erdogan's ability to govern effectively.
Anti-Western Axis Appears To Be Strengthening
The above developments would appear to indicate the strengthening position of an informal anti-Western axis comprising Syria, Lebanese Shi'a militant group Hizbullah, Iran, and North Korea, which has open backing from Russia and more quiet support from China. The 'axis' between Syria, Iran, and North Korea has existed for decades, mainly involving co-operation in matters such as missile and nuclear energy technologies . All three oppose the US in particular , and the West in general , and particularly Western efforts to increase its influence in their respective regions. Syria has long been Iran's closest ally in the Arab world, while North Korea is Iran's closest partner in East Asia. Syria and North Korea have also had close ties for decades . Hizbullah, meanwhile, is Iran's main proxy in the Levant, and Tehran has been seeking to consolidate a Shi'a belt stretching through Shi'a majority Iraq and Syria (which is ruled by a Shi'a sect, the Alawites) to Lebanon (and thus the Mediterranean). Russia , for its part , has given the Assad regime strong diplomatic and military backing, while retaining cordial ties with Iran and North Korea - countries that China also supports in various forms.
The Syrian angle: When Syria's rebels made strong gains last year, speculation was rife that Assad would fall, thereby breaking the Middle Eastern part of the axis by cutting off Iran's main conduit to the Mediterranean Sea. However, the apparent recovery of Assad's military fortunes has prompted a reassessment of the eventual 'inevitable collapse' of his regime. Although the EU and now the US have lifted their arms embargo on Syria's rebels, the West will still face considerable doubts about the wisdom of intervention. Not only are the rebels on the back foot, but there are reports of infighting between Sunni radical Islamist factions and more moderate nationalist ones. In addition, there have been multiple reports of atrocities by the rebels. Furthermore, if reports that more Syrians are switching their allegiance back to Assad are true, then this would beg the question of why the West should risk po litical capital in arming a seemingly unpopular (and in parts, anti-Western) rebellion. Nonetheless, even if Assad regains control of the majority of Syrian territory, he would rule over a weakened state and face extended diplomatic isolation. Some form of insurgency would continue , especially as arms flows from the West increase .
The Iranian angle: The Iranian government will take comfort from Syrian rebel losses, for Tehran has provided military support to the Damascus regime. The overthrow of Assad would be a clear geopolitical reversal for Iran , which seeks to uphold and expand Shi'a influence in the Middle East. The Syrian civil war has from an early stage been a proxy conflict between Shi'a Iran on the side of Assad and Sunni nations Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on the side of the rebels. If Assad defeats the rebels, Iran would feel vindicated.
However, Iran can hardly afford to feel comfortable, as its economy continues to suffer under sanctions . The June 14 presidential election resulted in a relatively moderate figure, Hassan Rouhani, being elected president , suggesting that Tehran could soon seek a partial rapprochement with the West. However, it is far from clear if Rouhani will have the authority to pursue such a move . He is also unlikely to have much say over Iran's Syria policy. Matters of foreign affairs and national security lie with the Supreme Leader, who is less keen on compromise. Over the coming months , Western leaders, and probably Israel, will adopt a 'wait and see' attitude towards Rouhani. Yet, if Rouhani fails to reduce tensions over the nuclear programme, we cannot preclude eventual Israeli airstrikes on Iran . An all-out Israel-Iran war, possibly drawing in US support, could boost the clerical regime in the short term, but weaken it over the longer term, especially if it results in economic devastation . For example, years of sanctions and military defeats in the former Yugoslavia eventually led to a popular uprising against former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
The North Korean angle: Reports that North Korea has sent military advisers to Syria are unsurprising in view of Pyongyang's longstanding ties with Damascus. The officers are apparently there both to assist the Syrians and to gain tactical experience for the North Korea n armed forces . Kim Jong Un's regime has meanwhile calmed down somewhat after a period of hyper-aggressive rhetoric against the US, South Korea, and Japan in March and April, during which Pyongyang threatened nuclear strikes against its enemies. North Korea now appears to be taking steps to reduce its isolation by re aching out to Japan, China, potentially Russia , and even the US . Pyongyang hosted a key adviser to the Japanese prime minister in mid-May and sent a special envoy to China later that month . Beijing is Pyongyang's closest ally, but has shown frustration with the Kim regime's provocations in recent months.
However, North Korea 's government , although seemingly secure, has not gained anything from its February nuclear test and subsequent extreme rhetoric. If the Assad regime were to weaken or collapse, this would alarm Kim, who could one day face his own uprising. Nonetheless, Pyongyang can at least take comfort from the fact that its nuclear arsenal makes airstrikes against North Korea very unlikely .
Turkish Unrest Could Weaken Erdogan's Hand
The recent unrest in Turkey could weaken Erdogan's hand and Turkish influence in the region. Firstly , rising opposition to the prime minister will force him to focus more on domestic matters , especially since one poll showed that 70% of Turks are against Erdogan's support for Syrian rebels . He could, of course, seek to distract public attention with some sort of foreign policy foray, such as by increasing his criticism of Israel, but this could backfire. Secondly , the instability in Turkey resulting from public concerns about creeping authoritarianism and Islamism is raising doubts elsewhere in the region about the desirability of the 'Turkish model' of Islamist democracy, which has been promoted widely after the 'Arab Spring'. Erdogan's harsh crackdown on protestors has rekindled memories of the 2011 uprisings across the region .
Furthermore, if Erdogan's position weakens significantly, he will be less capable of fina lising a peace deal with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party ( PKK ) or enshrining Kurdish rights in a new constitution. This could result in further unrest among the Kurdish minority . Finally, Erdogan has also offended Turkey's minority Alevis (a Shi'a sect which comprises around 20% of the population) by naming a new bridge currently under construction in Istanbul after a sixteenth century ruler who massacred thousands of Alevis.
Geopolitically speaking, Turkey's 'zero problems with neighbours' foreign policy is now discredited, for the country has found itself at loggerheads with Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Israel (despite the latter's recent attempt at rapprochement). The main geopolitical gain that Turkey has made in recent years is its deepening ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq - although this has come at the expense of good relations with Baghdad .
US Facing Mounting Risks Across Eurasia
As the US surveys Eurasia, it faces considerable risks. The Obama administration is committed to a 'pivot' towards the Asia-Pacific region, with the unstated intention of counterbalancing China. However, the instability in the Middle East is requiring the US to focus considerable diplomatic energies on that region. As noted, Syrian and thus Iranian gains in the Levant would challenge the US's Sunni allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Meanwhile, the US faces the prospect that the withdrawal of the majority of its troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will leave a security vacuum in Central Asia, which Islamist militant groups will seek to exploit . The risks are especially high for the US's ally, Pakistan. Meanwhile, the US's closest ally in East Asia, Japan, remains locked in a maritime territorial dispute with China, which could conceivably result in skirmishes. This would severely complicate Washington's relationship with Beijing (President Obama met his new Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on June 7 -8 ).
Nonetheless, US geopolitical setbacks in the Middle East and South Asia could be partly compensated by gains in the Asia-Pacific region. President Obama hosted Myanmar President Thein Sein in the White House on May 20, 2013 , marking a very significant step in Naypyidaw's emergence from isolation and its rebalancing of foreign policy priorities away from China. For the US, cultivating a South East Asian nation of 60mn people located at the crossroads of China, India, and the Indian Ocean would be a strategic gain. Meanwhile, rising concerns about Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea are pushing the Philippines and even Vietnam into closer military cooperation with the US.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on June 6. The update reflects the outcome of Iran's presidential election and the US's decision to arm Syria's rebels.