Turkish assistance in tackling IS has been welcomed, but how to resolve their conflict with the Kurds?

Big ideas of 2015: friends in strange places

The Obama administration has much to say—but it doesn’t really want friends
December 10, 2014
Read the rest of our big ideas of 2015

The turmoil in the Middle East and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have done strange things to alliances, not least to the ones that gelled—sort of—after the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago. Hopes of a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme will hang over the first half of 2015. If Iran comes in from the cold, it will shake up all the alliances of the region. “You won’t be able to issue visas fast enough, and your economy will boom faster than anyone’s”; that’s how one leading western diplomat was selling the deal—and the lifting of sanctions at its heart—to Tehran negotiators. The US wants Iran to help counter the chaos in Iraq, and potentially in Afghanistan, too, as international troops withdraw. There are signs many leading Iranian politicians are sorely tempted. It all hangs, though, on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has appeared to look coolly on deals in the past.

Israel though is appalled at the overtures the US has made to Tehran. So is Saudi Arabia. Those two countries have plenty of interests in common besides undermining Iran, but Israel’s continuing conflict with the Palestinians remains an insuperable obstacle to closer ties. Yet meanwhile Israel has forged a quiet working relationship with the new regime in Egypt; both loathe Hamas, the militant Islamic organisation that runs Gaza, and are working together to seal the borders of that strip of territory.

Turkey doesn’t mind the US’s new-found ability to negotiate with Iranians—it’s been at the same thing for a long time—but detests the US’s sudden embrace of Kurdish fighters to try to combat Islamic State. That undermines Turkey’s long battle against the PKK, Kurdish independence movement. Ankara wants a US commitment to driving out the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria—which the US is not keen to give.

At the heart of this tangle of new allegiances is the knot of contradictions that amount to western policy on Syria. The US, UK and others have backed rebels within the Free Syrian Army who looked likely to dislodge Assad. But now the rebels are struggling. Pouring arms into territory flooded with them is futile, although it continues. Do the US and UK really still want Assad to go? Yes and no; the quiet preference among many western officials is now for the Assad regime to stay—just without Assad and the elite of his Alawite sect—because it would at least stop the country disintegrating, say some. “If the alternative is a mess of the Shahids [Martyrs] of Whatever, then maybe we prefer anything that looks like order,” said one senior military observer staring glumly across the Israeli-Syrian border.

In all this, don’t forget Tunisia; the one country to have realised the idealistic dreams of the “Arab Spring”; it should be the friend of the western democracies but they risk taking it for granted.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, even though Russia is now China’s friend, or wants to be (see “The year of two pivots,” below), it retains pockets of support in the EU. Germany, which imports one third of its oil and gas from Russia; France, which in late November “suspended until further notice,” the delivery of the first Mistral warship to Russia; and Italy (trade with Russia is worth $30bn to the Italian Treasury) have put in place one-year sanctions against Russia, but Angela Merkel, who has hardened her stance, may still have a battle getting them renewed. The Obama administration has much to say on all this—but it doesn’t really want friends (who might drag it into battles); it just wants to go home.