“There’s definitely serious turbulence ahead as always in times of transition”

Iason Athanasiadis

Written by: Ioannis Michaletos, 18-Aug-10 |  Source: worldsecuritynetwork.com

– Interview with Iason Athanasiadis on the Middle East affairs conducted by Ioannis Michaletos — Iason Athanasiadis comments to Ioannis Michaletos on the current aspects of the Middle Eastern affairs and the trends shaping the region between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Hindu River, the most crucial geopolitical zone in the planet where a multitutude of present-day events affect the whole of the world, and where upturns and highly sensitive developments are expected in due term.


-The present era, shows that the region between the Eastern Mediterranean and the AfPak, is an amass of ethnic-based conflicts, military intervention and authoritarian regimes. Do you assess that this explosive mixture may well lead to a series of full-scale wars, in the not-so-distant future?

There’s definitely serious turbulence ahead as always in times of transition. And we are in a bona fide transition at the moment from a unipolar, US-dominated world to a multilateral order.

The interesting thing is that the great powers of the day, primarily China and the US, and secondarily Russia, prefer to subcontract the management of some crises to regional allies, each for their own reasons: China lacks confidence still, Russia is battling with internal turmoil, and the US is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran became a primary battlefield of contention and lever for influence after the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Turkey is stepping up its role in a spectacular way, at first in mediating the crisis in Iran, but soon we may see Turkey itself turn into a proxy battlefield, just as in the cases of Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan…

-Judging from your own personal experience in Afghanistan, what is the possibility of stability in the region, given the fact that the ethnic and tribal divisions still remain and ongoing guerilla warfare is waged upon the Coalition forces? In a few words, is it likely to assume that as soon as the international forces exit Afghanistan, a new round of civil war will erupt?

This is very likely, and that is because the presence of NATO in Afghanistan at the moment is blocking out other foreign influences and blocking the country’s traditional role as a proxy battleground for regional powers, notably India, Iran and Pakistan.

I bumped into a former Afghan Army general from the Communist days, at the Departures of Kabul Airport the last time I was there in May. He told me that “the moment NATO leaves we will be at each other’s throats again.”

-There has been a lot of talk, concerning Pakistan, as the state in constant threat of further destabilization by its neighbor Afghanistan. Is this a likely scenario for the short-term, or do you believe that in certain cases the Pakistani officials tend to exaggerate in order to attract much needed international support given the fact of the economic and political situation there and the country’s perennial antagonism with India?

It’s probably the other way round – Pakistan acting as a springboard for the further destabilization of Afghanistan through the jihadis it launches from cities such as Peshawar, Quetta and Miram Shah. But yes, it’s possible that Pakistan’s meddling will boomerang onto it. After all, Pakistan’s elites, like other US aid-receiving secular states such as Egypt and Israel, like to play in fire and promote themselves as a barrier to chaos in order to secure more cash. “Remove us and you open the gates of discord,” the Pakistanis like to suggest to their American counterparts. The spectre today is Islamism, as it was Communism up until two decades ago.

On the other hand, repressing any kind of political activity, not least political activity rooted in a social function as essential as religion, is counter-productive and will lead to blowback. The repression of indigenous religious movements in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere will lead to outbursts of resentment and far greater fanaticism once in power than had their path to it not been blocked. Current events in Turkey are a prime example of this; ditto the elections in Gaza that returned an Islamist government to power that is being blocked by Israel and the int’l community.

-A lot of pundits expect that as far as Iraq and Afghanistan is concerned, quite a few “jihadis” from across the world, have found a perfect training round, therefore even if these conflicts are resolved, ultimately these brigades will soon spread to other theaters or plainly into international terrorist action, thus the problem will just grow in time, with consequences not able yet to assess. Do you find these views have validity?

Yes. Just as the US would have better safeguarded its homeland post-September 11 by improving domestic policing and more tightly regulating how non-US citizens access the country, so have its interventions abroad further destabilized international security by creating enormous reservoirs of resentment. Unfortunately, doing the strenuous and politically unspectacular work of improving security and policing domestically was politically not viable in the aftermath of September 11.

Nevertheless, work has been done in making more rigorous the US visa issuance system, immigration controls and airport security operations. With regard to jihadis spreading elsewhere in the Middle East, they will probably try to destabilize their own governments in the Arab World and Central Asia as they did in the aftermath of the Afghan jihad. And it is also possible that some may end up in the Balkans too.

-What are Iran’s chances of integrating into the “World community” or finding its role within the current system, judging both by Teheran’s ambitions and the opposition from its adversaries? Is there room for maneuver for each side, or do you think that both are on collision course sooner or latter?

The US will not pick a fight where it feels that it stands to not win convincingly. Following quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, it cannot afford to create a third Middle Eastern sinkhole for itself. Hence its greater focus on consensus-building and joint action following the unilateralist Bush years.

Given this, and Iran’s tacit support from Ankara, Beijing and Moscow, Tehran stands a chance to be incorporated into a new international security architecture that will feature rival blocs confronting each other. However, the US may strike Iran, even inconclusively, should it feel that it has an international coalition behind it.

-According to many, the key for stability in the Middle East is the final solution of the “Palestine issue”. Is this a core theme for the whole of the Muslim world or maybe it is a symbolic one that behind it one can discover and comprehend far many issues that have to do with the status itself of the Muslim world in the present day international arena?

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential for reasserting US claims to being a fair and impartial adjudicator. At the time being, populist Middle Eastern leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah, Ismail Haniyeh and Teyyip Erdogan are solidifying their constituencies by using examples of US duplicity in dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians.

-Finally, I would like to ask, if the growing antagonism, as it seems, between Turkey and Israel, can be attributed to the change of balance in the Middle East since 2003, or do you believe it has to do more with the lack of strategy by the international community and especially the U.S in most aspects of the “Middle Eastern equation”?

It is a combination of both. Turkey is finally coming into its own – culturally it feels more at self with the culture it is – Mediterranean, predominantly Muslim, the inheritor of a cosmopolitanism that is the product of having been an empire, a leader in the Middle East – than at any other point since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. As a rising economic power – already the 18th largest economy in the world and expected to become the 10th largest by 2050 – Turkey’s newfound and very public enmity with Israel is also good business sense: Arab investments have poured into Turkey since September 11, noticeably increasing since Israel’s Gaza war in 2008 and Prime Minister Erdogan’s sharp public reaction to it.

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