THO Interview with Dr. Roger Petersen from MIT


THO: After almost two decades of US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan how do you see the Middle East? 

Roger Petersen: The US got out of Iraq in 2011 but the Islamic State-ISIS-filled the vacuum. After ISIS, the people of Iraq didn't want the US to completely leave. So far, we have a 2,000 soldiers still there. Iraq still needs in many aspects US cooperation. But in the future there will be a very limited US presence in Iraq. On the other hand, the US wants to be some kind of counter-balance against the Iranian influence in the region. Iran and the US both somewhat try to influence political developments taking place in Iraq. Also, one should admit though the Iranians have influence in Baghdad, on the Kurdish issue the US has much more influence. Anti-terrorism, security, Iranian influence and the Kurdish issue are the main interests that the US have in the region. Also, I don't see a real Arab Spring coming soon. It is very uncertain. The US doesn't have any Middle East strategy. The central piece of the strategy is kind of an ad-hoc containment of Iran. There are people in the Trump Administration that really believe they can change the regime in Iran. It is a wild card, I guess.

THO: When you emphasize the Kurdish issue I would like to ask if you see an independent Kurdish state coming out of Iraq in future? 

Roger Petersen: I don't see that in near future. I don't see Turkey, Iran, Baghdad coming to the point to wholly accept such development. It won't happen. The US itself doesn't want such development. The US wants to keep the Kurds within Iraq. Even after the referendum last year, the Kurds didn't get any support from the West. Although the Kurds have played an important role fighting against ISIS, they didn't get enough credit for it, which disappointed them.  I have been to Kurdish region, a lot of the youth don't even speak Arabic, they all speak Kurdish. The nationalism gets stronger day by day. There is more cooperation/collaboration between the Kurds in the region. Before the Civil War in Syria, the Kurds in Rojava were engaging with the Kurds in Iraq, and now even in a greater deal. The Kurdish Issue will remain a big problem for the region in the foreseeable future. Another thing is I don't see the Kurdish region getting integrated to the central government in Baghdad. It will be a bargain over the oil revenues, the US will continue to be a broker of that on and on... To tell you the truth, Kirkuk's future is very important and is still ambivalent. I don't how it is going to evolve between Baghdad and Kurdistan. 

THO: How do you see the future of Syria?

Roger Petersen: The only presence rebels have is in Idlib. The conflict is nearly ending. Assad basically won the war but he won the war with the help of outsiders. They will have their share in the future of Syria. Assad won but it is a very costly one. What will happen in Rojova? I don't think Turkey will accept any kind of autonomy there. This is important to point out that Russians don't want Assad to be completely victorious because then he would have more room to maneuver. Russians want to give Assad enough leverage to win over the rebels but not enough to completely consolidate his power in a way he might want to. The US is ambivalent about the future of Syria but the US doesn't have enough leverage to bargain for the Kurds. The complexity of the issue requires a one sided solution for the US but it’s hard for the US to do so. Turkey, Kurds, Iranians, Russians... Russia itself has a lot of problems at home. Economically it’s weak. Their economy is as big as Italy. To push Russia further, the Germans, the Europeans don't still have that intention. We are going to see a contentious peace between the West and Russia for the foreseeable future. 

THO: YPG is part of PKK which has attackedTurkey for 35 years. Turkey wants US to stop supporting YPG?

Roger Petersen: YPG is associated with the PKK, for sure. Even much more than KDP and PUK. But the Kurds in Rojava are the allies of the US from the U.S. perspective. The US doesn't want to give Turkey a free hand, that is not really their interest, especially while the image of Turkey in the West is not good. There is a lot of tension between Erdogan and the West. It is a very tricky situation how to recognize Turkey's legitimate entrance in northern Syria and there has to be some kind of bargain made. Turkey, on the other hand, has done a lot to accept refugees. I don't think the US has enough willpower or interest in Syria to compete with the other interests there. The Iranians and Hezbollah are the real powers on the ground, and the Russians have strong interest to support their major ally in the region since 1950s. But on the US side, I am not sure, if a country doesn't have enough willpower to get involved, they can make things worse for them and for the country they have involved. There are countries for sure that have many more important interests than the US. but certainly there is not any good decision good for the US, it is hard.

THO: How do you see Iran's position in Syria?

Roger Petersen: A lot of people in the Bush administration thought that we could easily topple down the Saddam regime in Iraq and replace it with a democratically elected pro-Western government, but the situation ensued chaos and a lack of a central state. The focus was somewhat wrong on the predictions and future of Iraq. We thought that if we implement a pro-western regime it could contain Iran but it didn't work out that way. We made Iran the big victor of the Iraq War. If anyone is the victor it is definitely Iran. Look how they mobilize militias in Iraq today. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Alawates in Syria, and Iran have strong hands in those places and really part of this comes from the fragmentation and lack of unity among the Sunnis in the region. There is a Sunni-Shia divide, and I think Shias are getting the upper hand in all of these countries. The Obama Administration's vision was that the US would leave the region and pivot in Asia and then Saudi Arabia and Iran would balance out each other, a kind of modus operandi between them... This is what the Obama Administration thought but it is not working that way. Shias are better organized, but Saudis are not capable allies. 

THO: Do you see a possibility of any military escalation between The Saudis and Iran in the Persian Gulf? 

Roger Petersen: I don't think so. At least in near future. Iran doesn't want that. Iranians are pretty astute political players, they identify their interests and escalate until they achieve it and then they pull back. Look what they have been doing in Iraq. They have pushed for their political interests so hard. The Iranians control security dilemmas in and around Basra. The Saudis funded a lot of groups in Syria and helped to escalate the situation but it didn't help anyone to sustain a situation, but they have done it in a fragmented way, but Iran is not like that. Iran is a serious player it will test the security in the Persian Gulf but it won't go to a point the West is afraid of. On the other hand, Iran has many domestic and economic problems.

THO: How do you see Turkey's S-400 deal with Russia?

Roger Petersen: Well, it makes a lot of sense for Turkey, Erdogan tries to balance against the West. And expelling Turkey from NATO, I don't think it will be possible. First of all, the Europeans won't have such a will. Turkey is extremely important for the security of EU. It won't escalate to that point.