Regional Security

European Strategic Autonomy after the Brexit


Prof. Biscop is the Director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and a Professor at Ghent University. He is an Honorary Fellow of the European Security and Defence College.

The EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) is one of the most ambitious EU documents on defence to date. Presented to the Heads of State and Government by High Representative Federica Mogherini in June 2016, the EUGS is the first document to put forward the objective of strategic autonomy. Not a moment too soon, as security challenges inside and around Europe are rising, while the US has made it clear that it will not, and cannot, solve all of Europe’s problems.

The operational dimension of strategic autonomy comes down to the ability to act without the US whenever necessary. From that follows the industrial dimension: having a defence industry that can produce everything that this requires, notably the strategic enablers.

The EUGS sets out four major military tasks: to help protect the European way of life at home; to maintain stability in the broad neighbourhood; to maintain the freedom of the global commons; and to contribute to United Nations collective security. Together, these four tasks represent a clear increase in the burden placed on Europe’s armed forces.

The neighbourhood especially presents a challenge. The emphasis is on increasing resilience and building capacity, but where war is ongoing, the EUGS also commits the EU to protect civilians and to consolidate local ceasefires. That entails deploying troops on the ground with serious firepower, backed up by air support and ready reserves, who will not necessarily seek out and destroy an opponent but who will fight when the civilians for whom they are responsible are threatened. Without that determination, the EU will not have created a safe zone but a trap. For many Member States, land operations with such a high potential of combat go far beyond anything that they have recently undertaken, certainly in an autonomous European framework.

It is vital therefore that the implications of this and the other tasks are spelled out and fully taken on board by the political and military leadership. The EUGS provides for a “sectoral strategy” on defence to do exactly that, under the heading, recently announced by the High Representative, of an Implementation Plan on Security and Defence. What this really is, of course, is an EU defence white paper.

The EUGS itself calls for “full-spectrum land, air, space and maritime capabilities, including strategic enablers”. The white paper must now quantify the four military tasks and the desired concurrency: How many operations, of which size, should Europeans be able to undertake simultaneously, without relying on non-European assets?

When a new strategy demands strategic autonomy, it would be contradictory to set too modest a level of ambition. Some now propose to focus on the autonomous deployment of a brigade, presenting this as an increase as compared to the ambition to have two battalion-size Battlegroups on stand-by. That, of course, is the wrong point of departure: the existing EU level of ambition is the Headline Goal – to deploy and sustain up to a corps of 60,000. It is the Headline Goal that must be revised – upwards.

For sure, if after a Brexit the British contribution is withdrawn from the EU’s Force Catalogue, it will create gaps that in the short term cannot be easily filled by the existing capabilities of the remaining Member States. But the Headline Goal was set in 1999, for a Union of 15 Member States. A revised Headline Goal will be a target for a Union of 27, with 1.35 million troops and a total defence expenditure of $200 billion. At the very least, the current Headline Goal should remain eminently feasible.

But with such overall numbers even an increased Headline Goal can be achieved over time – on the condition that defence integration is pushed much further. And an increased Headline Goal will be necessary if Europeans want to be able to deploy, simultaneously: long-term brigade-size stabilisation operations and a high intensity crisis management operation of several brigades and squadrons in the neighbourhood, as well as long-term naval operations, and battalion-size contributions to UN peacekeeping, while engaging in capacity-building and military cooperation.

In light of the crises in Europe’s neighbourhood and the global geopolitical tensions, this level of ambition is none too high. It is but the reflection of the rhythm of operations of the last decade. Maintaining and, over time, even increasing the Headline Goal is the realist option therefore: in view of what is necessary, but also in view of what is possible, looking at Europe’s military potential. Realism not only means not setting unachievable objectives – it also means not setting the bar too low and underexploit the potential that is there.

Furthermore, after the Brexit, Britain will still be in Europe, and British forces will still be there. If a crisis on Europe’s doorstep demands intervention, Britain is more likely than not to be a part of it. Even though UK will no longer be involved in defence cooperation under the EU flag, in practice EU strategic autonomy, at 27, can therefore still be pursued in the context of European strategic autonomy, at 28, assuming a British contribution on an ad hoc basis.

Mogherini has planned for the white paper to be adopted before the end of the year. Subsequently, the detailed catalogues of capability requirements, existing capabilities (minus the UK), and shortfalls will have to be updated. This will take time, but immediately after the adoption of the white paper, the European Defence Agency (EDA) can already update the Capability Development Plan (CDP), which was foreseen in 2017 anyway, and generate a first set of capability priorities in order to steer national and multinational efforts.

These priorities can then be incorporated into the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) as well. Only if the next iteration of the NDPP takes into account the capability requirements of European strategic autonomy, notably with regard to enablers, can a capability mix be created that allows EU Member States to do all: to contribute to Article 5, to undertake non-Article 5 operations with the US and the other non-EU Allies, and to launch autonomous expeditionary operations alone.

The white paper is key to the industrial side of strategic autonomy too. Under the next framework programme for research (2021-2027), the European Commission will, for the first time, provide significant funding (of at least €500 million) for defence research. The white paper and the resulting capability priorities must become the formal guidance for the use of these new funds. Industry must serve the Member States and their armed forces, not the other way around.

Finally, Member States need not wait to take action. The only way to achieve the capability targets will be further cooperation and integration, at two levels. At the EU-level, making full use of the EDA and Commission funds, to acquire the necessary strategic enablers. And at the level of various clusters of Member States, to create larger deployable formations through a combination of far-reaching pooling and specialization. The EU as such can facilitate cooperation in clusters, but only the Member States themselves can initiate it. They should do so as soon as the EU white paper is finished

At that point, two simultaneous processes should thus take off: while the EU institutions prepare a new iteration of the CDP, one or more clusters of Member States coming it at it from the other side should immediately announce the start of closer military integration between them, in order to demonstrate a number of shorter term results. For results is what we need.

For a detailed analysis, see

Image: HRVP Mogherini presents EU Global Strategy to NATO Sec General Stoltenberg, June, 2016, via flickr.

Testing times for Uzbekistan


The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the longest serving ruler in the post-Soviet space, has triggered concern about the stability of the Central Asian country. In power since 1989, Karimov’s authoritarian rule has undoubtedly contributed to relative stability, whilst also hindering the development of a robust economy and functioning civil society. The centralisation of power around Karimov and lack of effective, independent state institutions, means there are deep concerns about domestic stability following his death. The secrecy and uncertainty surrounding Karimov’s health in the days prior to the announcement of his death (unofficially by Turkey) was characteristic of the regime’s desire to maintain its strong grip on power. The apparent absence of a natural successor raised fears that the uncertainty may lead to a struggle for power between various elite factions.

Lying at the geographical heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is crucial for stability across the region. It is the most populous state in the region, with a population of around 27 million, and also possesses the largest armed forces. Its centralised economy remains heavily reliant on cotton cultivation, as well as exports of natural gas and gold, and has not attracted the levels of foreign investment seen in neighbouring Kazakhstan. Spillover from Russia’s economic recession has taken its toll on all five of the Central Asian states, particularly as remittances from migrant workers in Russia constitute a significant contribution to GDP. Leaders of neighbouring states, as well as Russia and China, will be deeply concerned about the possibility of any internal instability in Uzbekistan, which could trigger unrest across Central Asia. There have long been concerns across the region about the possibility of a ‘Central Asian spring,’ similar to the Arab Spring of 2011, with a popular uprising leading to widespread instability.

The significance of Central Asia increased greatly in the wake of 11 September 2001 and the US-led operation in Afghanistan. Already on the map thanks to its substantial hydrocarbon reserves, the region’s key role as a staging post for coalition forces propelled it further into the spotlight. In security terms, Central Asia suffers from its proximity to Afghanistan and many of that country’s problems spill over to its northern neighbours. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s was reflected by a corresponding rise in extremism in Central Asia, manifest by the emergence of groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose stated goal was the overthrow of Karimov’s government. The IMU broadened its perspective after 2002 to include the whole of Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang region, and was declared a “terrorist organisation of particular concern” by the Bush administration. An offshoot of the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), claimed responsibility for attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara in 2004 that killed 47, and re-emerged in 2007 when three men with alleged ties to the IJU were arrested in Germany for plotting terrorist attacks against the US military base at Ramstein, as well as the US and Uzbek consulates. There are concerns that groups such as these could be re-activated and undermine stability in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. According to the US State Department, whilst the government in Tashkent is confident about the security of its own border with Afghanistan, it has concerns about the porosity of the borders of its Central Asian neighbours, particularly its long border with Tajikistan. Fears were heightened again in June 2016, when it emerged that an Uzbek citizen was involved in the terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk airport. Nevertheless, in reality there have been few attacks in Central Asia, where governments have adopted harsh measures to counter the perceived threat in the name of national security and maintain their strong grip on power.

Despite fears about the emergence of a power vacuum in the absence of a publicly named successor, the transition has so far gone comparatively smoothly. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been Prime Minister since 2003, won parliamentary approval to become the acting president of Uzbekistan and presidential elections will take place within three months. The coming weeks will be critical for the future of Uzbekistan, as well as the stability of the wider region.

Image: Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov during the latter’s visit to the Kremlin in April 2016, via

DSD Summer Reading #4

This post forms part of a series where members of the Defence Studies Department share their thoughts on the books they are reading this summer. This post is by DR AMIR M KAMEL see more of his posts here, here and here.

The book: Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance has provided for an interesting read this summer. Jason Brownlee’s analysis of US-Egypt ties from 1979 up until and including the 2011 Egyptian Revolution provides a well researched account of how Washington, DC implemented a policy in Cairo which ultimately led to the failure of democracy in the Middle Eastern state. Brownlee also attests that this policy continued in the post-Mubarak era.

Poignantly, Brownlee assesses how the White House continued to pursue its own interests of ensuring US presence and influence in the country, as well as prioritising broader regional security concerns over the self processed ‘promotion of democracy’ in Egypt. This is something which I have found to corroborate with some aspects of my research. Indeed, through the reading and analysis of primary sourced material and data, I have found that economic interests have also played a key part in Brownlee’s so called ‘democracy prevention’ thesis. Additionally, my findings have determined that it is not just ‘democracy’ which was affected by this relationship under Mubarak, but broader strategic and regional issues also.

That being said, Brownlee’s work provides a very apt and useful analysis of the contemporary US-Egyptian relationship, and a worthy read for scholars looking to understand the Egyptian environment in which the Washington, DC-Cairo relationship resided over the past three decades.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

NATO’s Warsaw Summit and Russia: deterrence or provocation?


The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Summit in Warsaw, which took place 8-9 July 2016, focused on the continuing threat to Euro-Atlantic security from Russia, leading to an emphasis on deterrence and a strengthening of the alliance’s defence posture, moving away from its previous posture of reassurance. The summit’s final communiqué was uncompromising in its description of Russia’s ‘aggressive actions’ including the ‘ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea’, ‘the violation of sovereign borders by force’, ‘the deliberate destabilisation of eastern Ukraine’, ‘provocative military activities near NATO’s borders’ and ‘irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric’. The alliance’s response, as outlined in the communiqué, is to augment its deterrence and defence posture, establishing an enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This will comprise four battalion-sized battlegroups with forces provided by the framework nations of Canada, Germany, the UK and the US (along with other contributing allies) that can operate in concert with national forces and will be present at all times in the four countries. The alliance also declared its intention of developing a forward presence in the Black Sea region. Details of this plan were sketchy, although the communiqué stressed that, in addition to the Romanian-led initiative to establish a multinational framework brigade, NATO will consider strengthening both its air and maritime presence in the region.

Russia considers these increasing military deployments along its borders as a threat to its national security. Whilst NATO sought to underline that it does not seek confrontation with Russia nor poses a threat to it, this is not the message that has been received in Moscow, which has increased its (already high) level of anti-Western rhetoric. Speaking on the state-owned Rossiya-1 TV channel, Dmitry Kiseylov, the presenter of a weekly news review programme, said that the summit made it clear that Russia was no longer a partner, but a target and that NATO was preparing for war. This tone was echoed across a range of media and official statements. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused NATO of existing in a fantasy world and demonising Russia in order to divert attention away from the alliance’s ‘destructive’ role, while an article in the Kommersant newspaper argued that the guiding principle of the summit was ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’

The Russian response to the summit outcomes comes as no surprise: continued opposition to NATO’s global reach and enlargement has been a long-running theme in Russian rhetoric. The Russian political narrative remains dominated by anti-Western sentiment, as well as talk of ‘competition’ and the need to be ‘competitive’ with the West, which is thought to be encroaching into an area that had previously been Moscow’s exclusive zone of influence. This reflects a strong (and widespread) sense of grievance at perceived Western hostility, inflexibility and unwillingness to cooperate with Moscow. There is anger at what is seen as the West’s rejection of partnership with Russia, as well as its destabilisation of the international system – but little recognition that this is how the West views Russian behaviour over the past few years. Russia’s permanent envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko argued in a recent interview that NATO is seeking to impose new dividing lines on Europe and that Russia is not ‘remotely interested in the confrontational agenda … being offered’. Nevertheless, he warned that Russia will do everything to ensure its defence and that NATO’s eastwards expansion will be counterproductive, as it subjects Russia to ‘risks and threats’.

NATO used the summit communiqué to stress the need for continued dialogue with Russia within the framework of the revived NATO-Russia Council (NRC), which met at ambassadorial level on July 13, days after the summit had concluded. The meeting, which was only the second time the NRC had met since 2014, did little to reduce tensions between the two actors. Speaking afterwards, Grushko described NATO’s decision to deploy an additional four battalions in the Baltic States and Poland as ‘ungrounded, excessive, counter-productive and confrontational’, warning that it would ‘return us to the days of the Cold War’. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that there had not been a meeting of minds, but welcomed the opportunity to ‘clarify our positions to each other’, along with Russian support for a Finnish proposal on air safety measures in the Baltic Sea region.

The lack of genuine, constructive dialogue between the two parties is a serious cause for concern. Both Russia and NATO have positioned each other as adversaries, portraying the other as a significant threat to security and stability, and each believes that it is acting defensively in the face of a growing challenge from the other. Neither wants a war, but, in the current climate of mutual mistrust and continued confrontation, there is a danger that deterrence measures are perceived as an escalation of violence, prompting further counter-measures. In a time of widespread instability, more needs to be done to diffuse existing tensions and stimulate constructive dialogue, rather than the rhetoric of threat: Russia’s cooperation in tackling the menace from IS and international terrorism, as well as stabilising the Middle East and North Africa, is vital.


Image: Russia-NATO permanent mission logo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Turkey: It’s the lust for power, stupid


Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is illiberal and autocratic. He has little respect for the rule of law or the autonomy of institutions. He was content to allow lawyers and police officials who were alleged supporters of the cleric Fethullah Gulen to pursue, beginning in 2008, and eventually imprison military and other so-called ‘deep state’ functionaries on largely fabricated charges. In the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the corruption investigations launched against members of his inner circle in December of the same year – again by Gulen-linked lawyers and police officials – he embarked on a campaign to purge the police, judiciary and other public institutions of allegedly Gulenist officials and to take over or close down Gulenist businesses; he intimidated, took over or closed down more secular media outlets; and pressured the country’s universities and intellectuals. He even marginalised leading members of his own party. In the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt – a ‘gift from God’ in his own words – this crackdown has been sped up and intensified. His declaration of a three-month ‘state of emergency’ will extend the purge to anyone deemed a threat to his grip on power. Already, over fifty thousand public servants have been suspended from their official duties, and ten thousand have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the failed coup attempt. Almost one-third of the upper ranks of the officer corps are among this number. The military will surely now suffer the impact of Erdogan’s wrath. This is a witch hunt, and the label ‘Gulenist’ is about to end the careers and even freedoms of thousands of individuals, many of them innocent of anything that would raise eyebrows in a functioning liberal democracy.

However, Erdogan is acting as the adored leader of the over fifty percent of Turks who elected him to his office, and the similar number that vote for his Justice and Development Party (JDP). Materially, many of them have prospered considerably under Erdogan. Perhaps more importantly, their devout, conservative way of life is no longer subjected to official scorn or neglect. Religious education has been expanded, new mosques have been built, headscarved and bearded individuals are now employed in public office, and much of the media reflects their worldview. They see Erdogan as one of their own, and applaud him in his mission to wrench their country from the hands of a privileged, westernised, and unrepresentative metropolitan elite, and to turn the state into one in which the Anatolian masses feel they have a stake, to which they belong, and from which they can benefit. These people are not liberals. They are generally indifferent to and have little use for the freedoms that a liberal order bestows, are ignorant and suspicious of the west, and resentful of the secular minority that before Erdogan held their country in its grasp. This is payback time, and many are feeling triumphalist.

Turkey was not a liberal democracy in the days before the JDP was first elected to power in late 2002. Indeed, its forerunner as the representative of political Islam in the country, the Welfare Party, had been banned, as had all Islamic parties before it. Erdogan himself, as mayor of Istanbul, served a spell in prison. As recently as 2008, the then secular Constitutional Court failed by just one vote to shut down the ruling JDP for its ‘anti-secular’ activities, and in 2007 the Turkish General Staff responded to the prospective elevation to the presidency of one of the JDP’s leading members, Abdullah Gul, by issuing a so-called ‘e-memorandum’ threatening JDP rule. Secular dominance in Turkey was characterised by frequent military interventions in the country’s domestic politics, often supported by the secular elite. The 1980 coup led to over half a million detentions, a quarter of a million arrests, the banning of all political parties and imprisonment of their political leaderships, and scores of executions and unexplained disappearances. Under secular rule, all Kurdish parties were shut down and the use of the Kurdish language was restricted. The war conducted against Kurdish separatists was vicious and frequently illegal. Indeed, one of the first acts of the newly elected JDP in 2002 was to lift the decades-old state of emergency in the Kurdish regions. Turkey’s institutions were largely the preserve of the country’s westernised minority. Few Turkish ‘liberals’ lamented the exclusion of the headscarved and bearded from public office, or bothered themselves overmuch with the fate of Turkey’s Kurds.

Turkey has always been a divided society, but the boot is now on the other foot. Even so, Erdogan has not, yet, closed down political parties or, yet, executed anyone. Even the intensified war currently being waged against separatist Kurds in the country’s southeast comes in the wake of an attempted resolution to the conflict and against a backdrop of recognition that a Kurdish population exists in Turkey. These are not Turkey’s darkest days ever, at least not for the country’s conservative masses. The country’s secular and westernised minority, however, are facing increasing exclusion and marginalisation, and such liberal and lifestyle freedoms as the country has enjoyed look set to be further curtailed. Paradoxically, the country’s real or imagined Gulenists, no less devout in their own way than Erdogan’s JDP supporters, look likely to fare worse still. Few liberals, and few too of Erdogan’s fans, will be greatly concerned at that. Both liberals and Gulenists are deemed to represent a threat to Erdogan’s rule. Should the violent, bearded, and hard Islamist mobs that appeared among the crowds resisting the coup and celebrating its defeat imagine that the victory over the plotters is exclusively theirs, they too could yet find themselves in Erdogan’s line of fire as he relentlessly indulges his lust for power. We are not witnessing the end of a liberal democracy that never truly existed in Turkey. Rather we are witnessing a dramatic moment in an ongoing assault against anyone who might be regarded as a challenge to Erdogan’s autocratic rule.
Image: Anti-coup protesters after 15 July 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt in Bağcılar, İstanbul, Turkey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Interesting times for the Gulf Arab monarchies


With its double meaning, the Chinese proverb ‘may you live in interesting times’ aptly describes the current mood in the Arab Gulf monarchies. These states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates) are going through a period of intriguing flux. A range of long-held assumptions across the political, economic, and military sectors are being reassessed. Analysis needs to catch up quickly if it is to keep pace with the atypically quick changes currently cascading around the region. And, more to the point, with some of the region’s political ‘sacred cows’ being deeply challenged, it is interesting to reflect on what other ‘certainties’ and aspects of received wisdom are, perhaps, subject to change.

Among the most notable changes in the region are in the economic sphere. For the seven years prior to December 2014 the average price of a barrel of oil was around $89 whereas from January 2015 to May 2016 it fell over 50% to $46. This had profound effects around the region. All of the region’s monarchies remain reliant on the hydrocarbon industries and thus the price of oil is crucial for their revenues. Even Qatar, the richest state on earth per capita, saw its budget revenues plunge 40% from July 2014 to July 2015. Unsurprisingly, the region’s states shooting from budget surplus to deficit has led to consternation in the financial press. Particular concern is reserved for Saudi Arabia, by far the largest and in many ways most important state in the region, whose income and expenditure looks to be massively at odds in the near and medium term.

The reaction from the states has been striking. Aside from budget trimming across numerous sectors, new forms of indirect tax have been mooted. A region-wide VAT tax is provisionally set, for example, to be introduced by 2018. Similarly, states have found other ways to extract money from their citizens with subsidies being cut. The interesting thing about these revenue streams is that, as mundane as they may seem in a western context, in the monarchies, the nature of the ruling bargain is different. Though the realities certainly differ across the states, the notion of ‘no taxation for no representation’ is a basic assumption as to the modus operandi of state-society relations in the region. To see such a basic understanding come under some kind of challenges is interesting.

Moreover, one of Saudi Arabia’s reactions to this fiscal crisis has been to endorse and launch yet another consultancy-led project to revamp the state’s economy. The likes of McKinsey have been writing these reports for decades and they have had, overall, vanishingly little impact on the core change: meaningfully shifting the economy away from its hydrocarbon dependency. This latest project is perhaps more far-reaching than others, but it is the accompanying announcements of the part-privatization of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, that is a remarkable step forward. While in a western context, again, this may sound like another mundane reaction, in Saudi Arabia, where the oil company has been the font of the nation’s wealth, so sacrosanct that until last year Royal family members were kept out of senior Aramco decision making circles, to nationalize even a small part of the behemoth company is extraordinary.

It must not be forgotten, however, that this is not the first time that these states have suffered from vacillating oil price. A serious crash in the price in the 1970s and 1980s induced a range of lay-offs and budget cuts. Such historical contextualisation is often forgotten by the press in their alarm. So the states have survived moments where the ruling bargain has been challenged, and the governments have demanded more from their subjects. But, of course, just because they have survived before does not automatically mean they could survive again.

Serious-looking crises and changes are not confined to the economic sphere. Politics in the Gulf region is also going through an era of profound change with new, often younger leaders coming to the fore. In recent years this has happened in Qatar, to a degree in the UAE, and also in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in the Saudi Kingdom a new Prince has arisen who has hoovered up a variety of critical portfolios. Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, a thirty year old son of the King, has effectively carved out enough roles to make himself arguably the most important man in the state. In a country that has endured such elderly leadership in recent generations, the shift to this dynamic youngster is a jarring, fascinating development. Perhaps only someone as taboo-breaking as Mohammed bin Salman could have led the privatization of Aramco or, indeed, launched such an unprecedented war (in terms of scale, ambition, and troop deployment) in Yemen in conjunction with another regional hawkish leader, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto leader in the UAE.

In terms of international politics, the Iranian nuclear deal has deeply concerned the Gulf Arab monarchies. When sanctions are ultimately released, they feel that that will allow Iran to grow stronger economically and ultimately militarily and it will then continue its various campaigns supporting its proxy forces around the region (e.g. Hezbollah, the Assad regime) with even more resources. Moreover, since 1979 American-Iranian relations have been frozen. Yet they will now thaw, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, the Gulf Arab monarchies have long feared this kind of ‘grand bargain’ – that the US will, in their desire to make sure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons to safeguard Israel’s future, effectively abrogate their role as a de facto protector of the Gulf Arab monarchies as a price worth paying.

It will be fascinating to observe how new, often inexperienced leaderships respond with policies of change and continuity to the regional and international challenges they face in a more constrained fiscal climate. With a taboo-breaking announcement, event, or policy every few months, predicting the direction of travel is fraught with danger. History suggests that the states are more resilient than they may first appear; their downfall has been predicted for decades, yet still they march on into ever more interesting times.

Image: US Secretary Kerry Sits With Gulf Cooperation Council Members Before Meeting in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What BREXIT means for the Middle East


The June 23 vote in the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) sent shockwaves across the country, continent and globe in the political, economic and security spheres. This has already had and will continue to have ramifications in the Middle Eastern region. These are likely to be both positive and negative, depending on where one is sat, based on their perspective, in the region and what issues are of their concern.

From the perspective of Western-allied governments and actors in the international community, the development can be seen as weakening the cohesiveness of the forces tackling international security issues both in the region and outside of it. Indeed, when viewed in the context and desire to increase alliances, cooperation and integration, the BREXIT result can only be detrimental to this cause.

From the perspective of those who reject foreign influence in the region, this is a positive step. This camp includes a range of peoples and actors who cut across the different levels of society, government and non-governmental entities in the region. The concern here comes from the average Middle Easterner who is fed up of the continued presence and impetus of foreign powers in the region whom exercise their will. Indeed, regional desires to curtail outside interference stretch back at least as far as the Ottoman Empire and the mandates which managed the region following the first and second world wars, as well as global powers using the territory to fight proxy conflicts (i.e. during the Cold War). Additionally, this camp includes the various governments and actors across the region who have continued to reject foreign presence and policies in the region, the most notable of which being the Islamic Republic of Iran regime, Russia and the Bashar Al-Assad Administration in the context of the Syrian Civil War.

Rather despondently, this group also includes non-governmental actors and militant groups, such as Al-Qaida and DAISH (aka IS, ISIL, ISIS and the Islamic Caliphate). Indeed, for these militant organisations, a more divided or perhaps more poignantly, a less aligned and cooperating enemy is only a good thing. Further, the conceptual impact of the BREXIT result for these actors is one which represents less cooperation and coordination within the anti-DAISH coalition. That being said, the counter to this point is that due to the grave, and as some have called it, existential threat of DAISH, there will always be an alignment in the international community among those who have an interest in seeing the terrorist organisation fail. However, the point remains that, despite its many shortcomings, organisations like the EU nevertheless provide a forum in which countries come together and discuss issues of mutual concern. Indeed, examples of where this has already proven to be problematic are evident when concerned with issues surrounding Greece and Turkey. With both countries being members of and therefore eligible to attend North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) led meetings and discussions, but only the former’s membership of the EU means that the latter cannot attend meetings in an EU context.

Resultantly, there are both positives and negatives for the various actors across the region. Indeed, the BREXIT can be either a positive or a negative, depending on where you sit. What is clear, however, is the fact that whilst what the BREXIT represents, that is a sentiment of ‘independence’ as noted by the Leave Campaign. Further, the likes of DAISH have continued to capitalise on the interdependent and liberal nature of the international community, by targeting western and non-westerners in their terror campaigns across the globe. Therefore, increasingly ‘independent’ states must ensure that they maintain their place in the interdependent nature of the international system in order to tackle such terrorist threats.

Image: Middle East geographic. Courtesy of NASA’s globe software World Wind via Wikimedia Commons.

Iran and Regional Security


Following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January 2016, involving Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, on behalf of the international community), there has been an increased potential for a new era of Iranian cooperation when it comes to security issues of international concern. The JCPOA had ameliorated international security concerns surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme, and set a precedent for reciprocal dialogue between the Middle Eastern state and the international community, at least on paper. That being said, there are still points of concern across the region as to whether the JCPOA is a positive development, vis-à-vis removing the nuclear threat of Iran, in principle, and what this means in practice across the Middle East.

Firstly, regional concerns emanate from the very nature of the JCPOA, i.e. it’s finite remit. Specifically, the agreement details that:

– Iran must limit it’s estimated 20,000 centrifuges (as of July 2015) to 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges in Natanz over the next 10 years.

– The country must also reduce it’s uranium stockpile by 98% to 300kg (660lbs) over the next 15 years, limit the level of enrichment to 3.67%, and the Natanz facility is to be used for research and development.

– The Fordo facility is prohibited from nuclear enrichment for the next 15 years (and is to be converted to a technology centre with the existing centrifuges to be used for alternate purposes).

– The Arak plant is not permitted to build additional heavy-water reactors or accumulate any excess heavy water for the next 15 years.

– Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is mandated with further safeguards, including: IAEA inspectors are allowed access to sites deemed suspicious and Iran has 24 days to comply with IAEA requests for the next 15 years.

The JCPOA also articulates that should Iran fail to honour it’s commitments to the agreement then the sanctions imposed on the country prior to January 2015 would be ‘snapped back’ into place for 10 years (and extendable for another 5).

Resultantly, the finite nature of the JCPOA has created a ‘new realm of security’, where the nuclear capabilities of a state have been effectively put on pause for the next 10-15 years. As a result, this has inevitably caused concern for the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime’s regional rivals. Consequently, the rhetoric of limiting Iran’s intentions (i.e. the rhetoric put forward since the IRI came to power following the 1979 Revolution), has continued to hold it’s place in the regional centres of power.

On the one hand, the JCPOA has condoned or legitimised Iran’s clandestine behaviour over it’s nuclear programme over the past fifteen years or so. Further, to put this in a regional context, the agreement has brought Iran ‘in from the cold’ when it comes to the international community (to a certain extent). Those who see the world in zero-sum or realist terms, see this as a negative development.

On the plus side, the JCPOA has provided a new foundation and framework for dialogue and cooperation. Indeed, as I argued in a previous post titled Iran and DAISH: A Cause to Agree on, issues of mutual concern, e.g. the threat of DAISH, have already resulted in uneasy collusion between Iran and it’s most prominent regional rival, Saudi Arabia. As a result, the positive-sum or liberally inclined actors and observes see the agreement as a positive development. Indeed, the precedent set over such cooperation, is promising for the post-JCPOA era.

That being said, both views will adjust, develop and reform as different internal and external pressures emerge and re-emerge in the short and medium-term, as I noted in an earlier post titled Winners and Losers of a Post-Sanctions Iran.

Image: Satellite Image of the Middle East Region, obtained from NASA and/or the US Geological Survey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nagorno-Karabakh clashes threaten stability in the South Caucasus


Violence has erupted in the South Caucasus, with clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops along the Line of Contact around Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in a number of casualties. The military clashes began in the early hours of 2 April, while both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents were attending the Nuclear Security Summit in the US. The unresolved dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most worrying unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus region, both because of rising tension between the two sovereign states and because the three principal regional powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – all have a differing stance towards the issue. The tense situation polarises the regional powers, with Russian support for Armenia and Turkey’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan dividing the wider Caucasus region into two blocs and raising fears that, if there was a sustained renewal of fighting, it could rapidly become internationalised. It is over two decades since a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1994, but the ensuing stalemate has brought no real peace or stability and the two countries are still officially at war over the mountainous region. Fundamental issues remain unresolved and, as the fresh clashes demonstrate, the threat of renewed hostilities remains very real.

In recent years, there has been an escalation of violence around Nagorno-Karabakh with regular exchanges of fire along the 160-mile Line of Contact (LoC) between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops and a growing number of casualties in the so-called ‘sniper war’. The outbreak of violence on 2 April is the most serious confrontation since the 1994 ceasefire with over 30 deaths on both sides confirmed. Reports suggest that tanks, helicopters and armoured vehicles were involved. A new ceasefire was announced on 5 April, but there have been reports that the violence has continued and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has warned that, if the fighting escalates, Armenia will recognise the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. The escalation in violence on the LoC over recent years has been accompanied by increasingly belligerent rhetoric from political leaders and a significant growth in defence spending by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has made it clear that he intends to pursue his father’s objectives of transforming the country into a regional power, restoring its territorial integrity and uniting the population. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan spend a significant proportion of their national income on defence expenditure, although Armenia is not endowed with the hydrocarbon reserves that its neighbour has. There has been a dramatic rise in oil-rich Azerbaijan’s defence spending from US$175m in 2004 to an estimated US$3.8bn in 2014, meaning that Azerbaijan’s spending on defence exceeded Armenia’s entire national budget (around US$3.2bn in 2014). Nevertheless, in spite of its relative lack of economic advantage, defence spending in Armenia still constitutes around four per cent of GDP (its defence budget in 2013 was US$447m), one of the highest levels amongst the post-Soviet states. Furthermore, whilst Azerbaijan’s armed forces are already almost double the size of Armenia’s, Armenia benefits from Russian political and military support. Russia is Armenia’s staunchest ally and Yerevan has sought a close relationship with Moscow to counterbalance what it perceives to be its vulnerable position between two countries that are antagonistic towards it: Turkey and Azerbaijan. Russia is its key trading partner, providing vital supplies of energy, as well as its principal source of security, providing much-needed military equipment and support. Armenia also has close relations with Iran, a relationship driven by strategic necessity: the two countries share borders and one of Armenia’s principal transit routes passes through Iran, whose southern transit routes are vital to Armenia given the closure of its border with Turkey. 

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is similarly dominated by the continuing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: settlement of the conflict and ‘the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity’ are the country’s primary foreign policy priority. Azerbaijan has a close relationship with Turkey, a relationship based to a large extent on ethnic and linguistic similarities. In addition to strong diplomatic and economic ties, Azerbaijan also receives a considerable amount of military support from Turkey, which has been assisting the development of the Azeri Armed Forces since the country became independent in 1991. However, this close alliance, like the Russian-Armenian partnership, reinforces mutual mistrust and suspicion over Nagorno-Karabakh, hindering the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. These agreements also increase fears that the conflict could become internationalised, with Russia or Turkey being obliged to assist their strategic ally in the event of a resumption of violence. Current diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Ankara could further complicate the situation.

The rapid escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh took many by surprise: after years of stalemate and an apparent a lack of resolve in the international community to sort out the problem, the protracted conflict has dropped off the radar, despite the need for greater international involvement. In addition to the security and geostrategic implications of any renewal of conflict, there are also economic ones to be considered, particularly the region’s role as a key transit route for the export of hydrocarbons from the landlocked Caspian Sea region. The rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, combined with escalating defence expenditure, threaten to undermine security in its broadest sense across the volatile Caucasus region. This latest escalation of hostilities should act as a stark reminder of the need for greater international attention and the imperative of a negotiated settlement.

Image: A graffiti in Yerevan depicting the outline map of Armenia and Artsakh. The text says “Liberated, not occupied”, via wikimedia commons.