IN AUGUST SAMANTHA POWER, America’s aid chief, visited Ethiopia. Not long ago, such an important official from the world’s only superpower would have been welcomed with deference. Instead, her request for a meeting with Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was ignored. However, Abiy did find time that day to appear on television inspecting drones apparently made by America’s arch-enemy, Iran.
It was an extraordinary snub. America until recently enjoyed friendly relations with Ethiopia. It has been a big donor to a government that depends heavily on aid, and energetically backed the democratic reforms that Abiy had promised when he came to power in 2018. But relations have now soured. America has criticised Abiy for his increasingly authoritarian ways and for waging a brutal civil war. Abiy has responded by thumbing his nose at Uncle Sam and finding less preachy friends.
Turkey, Iran, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all reportedly been selling weapons to Ethiopia. Eritrea has sent troops. The UAE has been accused of flying drones for Abiy. It also pledged billions in aid, and has reportedly trained Abiy’s personal bodyguard. Such help may have given him the confidence to wage total war on rebels in Tigray, a northern region, rather than negotiate with them.
The results have been ugly. Jemal Ibrahim (not his real name) was hiding in the Tigrayan mountains when the drones came. One night he saw what he believes were unmanned spy planes buzzing across a cloudless sky. The next morning, he heard explosions in the fields below.
When he went down to look, “what I saw was really dreadful,” he says, his voice faltering. The charred remains of tanks lay twisted by the side of the road. Once, he says, he saw a Land Cruiser ferrying journalists working for a Tigrayan broadcaster explode before his eyes.
Bombs and bullets were supposed to cow the Tigrayan rebels. Instead they have enraged them. The rebels have regrouped, repelled the Ethiopian army and advanced towards the capital, Addis Ababa, which is also threatened by insurgents from the south. The government is arresting ethnic Tigrayans and urging other civilians to arm themselves. Because of the war, millions of Ethiopians are at risk of going hungry.
The disaster unfolding in Ethiopia cannot wholly be blamed on outside interference. But it has not helped. Like many autocratic rulers, Abiy likes dealing with other autocrats. They don’t fuss about democracy and human rights. Their diplomacy is personalised and transactional—we’ll sell you arms, and perhaps our firms will win construction contracts in your country.
Abiy’s refusal to listen to America, which counselled restraint, has cost Ethiopians dearly. And the support of a clutch of medium-sized autocratic powers has hastened Ethiopia’s descent into the abyss.
It is also part of a broader trend. As America retreats from the world, middle-sized powers are throwing their weight around more. No one is surprised that China and Russia project hard power abroad. What is new is that smaller menaces like Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are doing so more brazenly than at any point in recent history. Middle-sized powers now have “an enormous capacity for messing [things] up”, laments a senior UN official.
America is still the world’s greatest power. But since the late 2000s its ability to deter foes and reassure friends has waned. George Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended in failure. Barack Obama drew a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons but did nothing when Bashar al-Assad crossed it in Syria. Donald Trump scorned America’s allies. Joe Biden ditched Afghanistan.
Other countries sense, not exactly a vacuum, but many areas of the world where American power is unlikely to be deployed vigorously. Mr Biden says he had to ditch Afghanistan to concentrate on China. If all his attention is on China, other regimes may calculate that they are free to flex their muscles elsewhere.
They do so for a variety of reasons. Some have legitimate security concerns, and no longer feel they can rely on a superpower to protect them. Some venture abroad to distract attention from failures at home. Some leaders trade military support for commercial advantage—typically for their cronies, not their people. Some are driven by ideology, but more are driven by something cruder: an understanding that if autocrats help each other, they can stay in power longer.
Probably most meddlers have multiple motives, which is why the new world disorder is so much more complicated than the cold war. Consider Venezuela. Under President Nicolás Maduro, its economy has collapsed by 75%. Yet his awful regime survives, with the help of two medium-sized malefactors (Cuba and Iran), and two large ones (Russia and China).
It is hardly surprising that Russia would have the means and motive to back a regime America loathes, or that China would lend it money. But what of Venezuela’s littler helpers? Cuba’s leaders support Mr Maduro because they are soulmates: autocratic, far-left and brutal. Venezuela sends Cuba cut-price oil; Cuba sends back thousands of doctors and spies. The Cubans train Venezuelan medics and interrogators. They also help Mr Maduro snoop on his own security services, to weed out potential coup plotters.
Iran supports his regime for different reasons. At first glance, Shia theocrats have little in common with the hard-drinking, pork-guzzling socialists who rule Venezuela. But they are united by their hatred of the United States and contempt for the wishes of their own people.
Iran is a “mentor” to Venezuela. It teaches it how to dodge United States sanctions, to which it has been subject for far longer, says a former official of Mr Maduro’s government. Since 2019 trade between Iran and Venezuela has risen sharply. Iran sends Venezuela food and fuel in exchange for gold, which has been smuggled via Turkey. Passengers joke that even near-empty flights between Caracas and Istanbul seem strangely heavy at take-off.
In Ethiopia and Venezuela midsized meddlers have emboldened dismal regimes. In Afghanistan a midsized meddler helped install one. Three weeks after the Taliban seized power, reporters spotted a suave guest in Kabul’s swankiest hotel. Though the Afghan capital was overrun by gun-toting jihadists, Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed, who was then Pakistan’s chief spy, seemed relaxed. “Don’t worry, everything will be OK,” he told a reporter.
Pakistan meddles for geopolitical reasons. The military men who really call the shots there are afraid of India, their great enemy to the south, and also have an interest in exaggerating that fear, since they use it to justify their huge budget, unaccountable power and splendid perks. They long argued that India wanted to encircle Pakistan by forging ties with Afghanistan. So they supported the Taliban, not least by allowing them to use Pakistan as a rear base.
In August, as America pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban took over. Pakistani military officers are crowing. India has lost its influence (which was never as great as Pakistan said it was) and Pakistan has gained a friendlier neighbour.
Meddlers are often muddlers
Yet Pakistan’s victory in Afghanistan could prove pyrrhic. “Pakistan is too poor to support a satellite state,” says Husain Haqqani of the Hudson Institute, an American think-tank. The Taliban are woeful administrators. Under them, Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing. Some families are selling their daughters to buy food. Pakistan has no wish to host another surge of Afghan refugees, but if the Taliban provoke another civil war it may have no choice. Fearful of this, Pakistan is pleading with the West to resume aid to Afghanistan, and with the Taliban to be more inclusive. Neither has given much ground yet. Of the two, the Taliban may prove more obstinate.
Turkey, like Pakistan, has real security concerns, even if its ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, often exaggerates them. Kurdish fighters in Syria, allied to Turkey’s home-grown Kurdish separatists, tried to carve out a statelet on Turkey’s border. Turkey saw this as a threat. Mr Erdogan responded by invading and occupying much of northern Syria. Shops there now sell Turkish goods, the Turkish lira has replaced the Syrian dinar, and Turkish flags hang from government buildings rebuilt by Turkish contractors. Locals complain about abuses by the Syrian mercenaries Turkey uses to police the area.
Until the early 2010s Mr Erdogan tended to rely on diplomacy and mediation to defuse complex regional disputes. Today, he seems to think Gordian knots are best torn apart by a Turkish drone. He has deployed warships to the eastern Mediterranean to lay claim to waters Greece and Cyprus consider their own. He has sent troops to Libya. He has helped Azerbaijan win a war against Armenia.
Mr Erdogan does such things partly because nationalism plays well at home. Even the opposition goes quiet when he wraps himself in the flag. And displays of martial prowess take voters’ minds off the economy, which has suffered under his erratic management. Yet Turkey’s new foreign adventurism also derives from a conviction that the country should deploy its army, NATO’s second biggest, to get its way, no matter what its allies think. Mr Erdogan does not want to leave NATO. But he is ready to push relations with the West to breaking point.
Many Turks began to question their reliance on America after its debacle in Iraq, says Alper Coskun, a Turkish ex-diplomat. The questioning accelerated when, in Syria, America outsourced the ground war against Islamic State to Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists. “There is a feeling we’re not getting anywhere with our traditional partners,” says Mr Coskun.
The Turkish government, which detests Mr Assad, was disappointed when Barack Obama failed to punish him for using chemical weapons in 2013. Russia’s subsequent intervention to prop up Mr Assad ended Turkey’s hopes of toppling him, but also taught Mr Erdogan that Turkey too needed to move fast and break things. The thinking in Ankara was that “If the Russians can get things done with hard power, we can follow their path,” says a Turkish official.
In some ways, Turkey’s interventions have succeeded. Turkey helped Azerbaijan win back territory previously occupied by Armenian forces. The armistice gave Turkey a land corridor to Azerbaijan and the rest of the Turkic world. In Libya a government saved from overthrow by Turkish troops recognised dubious Turkish claims in the eastern Mediterranean. By deploying gunboats, Mr Erdogan showed that Turkey was ready to use force to defend what it considers its maritime borders.
But these victories have damaged relations with Europe, America and Middle Eastern powers. “Trust with allies has been completely lost,” says Soli Ozel, of Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Also, stepping into the vacuum left by American inaction and European weakness means having to deal more with Russia. “When Turkey is left alone in the room with Russia, its hand is not as strong as it once thought,” says Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. It was Russia that greenlit three of the offensives Mr Erdogan launched in Syria—and also set limits on how far Turkish troops could go.
From minnow to mischief-maker
The trailer for “The Ambush” starts like a Hollywood action flick. Soldiers swap jokes and lift weights before setting out on patrol in an armoured vehicle. Insurgents surround them in a valley. Comrades rush to the rescue, while helicopters swoop overhead. Viewers will have to wait until November 25th to find out if they survive.
The good guys in this film, however, are not from America but from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And the war they are fighting, as part of a Saudi-led coalition battling rebels in Yemen, is one in which America played only a supporting role.
With just 1m citizens in a population of 10m, and a standing army smaller than the Delhi police, the UAE is surely one of the tiniest countries to make a big-budget blockbuster about its martial exploits. Until recently, when the UAE sent troops abroad, it did so as part of larger Western-led missions. Its troops helped America liberate Kuwait and served with NATO in Afghanistan; its warplanes helped America bomb Islamic State. Like the other Gulf states, the UAE long felt comfortable under an American security umbrella.
Lately, though, the Emiratis have struck out on their own. They deployed thousands of ground troops to Yemen. Emirati drones have bombed faraway Libya. Emirati bases have popped up in Eritrea and Somaliland. The country introduced conscription for male citizens in 2014, and in 2018 extended it from 12 to 16 months.
The UAE is not the only Arab country to get involved in regional conflict. Saudi Arabia is still fighting in Yemen, a battle the Emiratis largely quit in 2019. Egypt has intervened in Libya’s civil war. But both acted against what they saw as neighbouring countries’ threats to their own security.
The UAE’s motives are more diffuse. One is ideological: the UAE views political Islam as an existential threat. It has bankrolled anti-Islamist politicians in Egypt and Tunisia. It has sent countless planes stuffed with weapons to Khalifa Haftar, a warlord who in 2019 nearly overthrew the Islamist-aligned government of Libya.
The UAE’s military policy is intertwined with commerce. Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the national-security adviser, also oversees a business portfolio that includes ports and arms. DP World, a Dubai ports conglomerate, runs terminals in the Horn of Africa. And where it goes, so too goes its army. A base in Assab, on the Eritrean coast, served as a jumping-off point for the war in Yemen. The UAE has trained military and police forces in Somalia. It views the region as strategic, not only for defence but also for trade and food security.
Interventions boost the UAE’s mostly state-owned arms industry. The UAE is one of the world’s ten biggest arms importers, says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank. By 2030 it aims to produce a third of its military kit at home. Emirati-made armoured vehicles have already been spotted in Libya.
Yet for all its swagger, the UAE has found foreign intervention hard. Since its withdrawal from Yemen it has dismantled part of its base in Assab. It has also scaled back its role in Libya. Officials cast this in high-minded terms—a pandemic-era effort to focus on the home front. In reality, the UAE is pulling back because it has been unsuccessful. The war in Yemen has become a quagmire; Mr Haftar’s march on Tripoli, the Libyan capital, ended in failure.
The master meddler
Early this month a drone laden with explosives crashed into the Iraqi prime minister’s house, injuring seven bodyguards. No one claimed responsibility, but fingers were pointed at Iranian-backed militias.
Iran is perhaps the most successful medium-sized meddler. It backs Hizbullah, a Shia militia with a chokehold on Lebanon, and Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group that rules Gaza. It helped save Mr Assad in Syria and arms the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In 2003 America toppled Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi despot, thereby removing a crucial (if odious) counterweight to Iran. Now Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are so strong that the state fears to confront them. America has occasionally pushed back, most notably when Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the mastermind of Iran’s covert foreign policy. But his influence lingers.
At home, Iran is a mess. Iranians have been growing poorer for a decade. Most are so frustrated that they boycotted an unfair presidential election this year. Yet the foreign armed groups that Iran supports are thriving. Much of the Middle East is now under their sway.
They are not lavishly funded. Nor are they popular. Most avoid elections, or do badly in them And yet Iran has proved adept at setting up ideological franchises. These are not mere automatons. Iran could not tame the Houthis in Yemen even if it wanted to. In Syria Mr Assad flirts with Iran’s Arab foes. Even Hizbullah, Iran’s most loyal Arab offshoot, controls its own arsenal and decides when to launch wars.
But loose control lets Iran’s franchises dig local roots. Iran may provide seed capital, arms and a guide to assembling drones. Its clients are then expected quickly to start financing themselves, through smuggling, extortion or drug-dealing. Mr Assad, Hizbullah and the Houthis peddle amphetamines, hashish and qat (a narcotic leaf). Iran’s main clients have also captured states, wholly (Syria) or in part (Lebanon, Iraq). The Iraqi state pays the salaries of the pro-Iranian militias that undermine it, handing lump sums to their commanders—hardly a recipe for curbing graft.
Franchising violence spares Iranian blood as well as treasure. Iranians fight for Palestine to the last Palestinian, Israelis quip. Fewer Iranians died fighting in Syria and Iraq than other Shia foreigners. Iran has recruited Shia refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan to join their ranks.
Iran sometimes works with Sunnis but its main aim is to inspire Shias, of whom there are some 100m in the Middle East, to fight its wars. At a warehouse near Basra in Iraq, it signs up volunteers and schools them in its revolutionary creed. Portraits of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, line the walls, along with poems about martyrs. Most Shias reject Iran’s ideology. But those who embrace it have missiles. Indeed, Iran’s franchises add up to what is arguably the Middle East’s most powerful military force. Certainly it can upset the world’s oil supply. In 2019 Iran’s allies in southern Iraq disabled Abqaiq, the world’s largest oil refinery, in Saudi Arabia.
In a multipolar world, the influence of medium-sized powers will surely grow. Many will be benign: think of Japan, Germany or Canada. But as the constraints on midsized malefactors slip, expect more trouble, too. Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank, puts it bluntly: “The international order is going to get a lot messier as a result of the US being less involved.” ■
This article appeared in the Briefing section of the print edition under the headline “The menace of midsized meddlers”
Source link : https://www.economist.com/briefing/2021/11/27/as-america-retreats-regional-rogues-are-on-the-rise
Publish date : 2021-11-25 16:35:46