In the history of the Middle East, the year 2017 is going to be a big year for anniversaries as it marks the 100th anniversary of 1917 and the 50th anniversary of 1967 — the two most consequential years of the past century. Curiously, and perhaps instructively, certain threads of time run through both years, tying them together with one another—and our present day. In 1917, as World War I started to redraw the old lines in the Middle East, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued his famous declaration in support of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Fifty years later, the Middle East of 1967 was plunged into the Six-Day War that redrew the maps yet again. Exactly fifty years after that, the Middle East has again become a theatre of a war under a set agenda to once again redraw the boundaries of the Middle East. This year is going to determine the future of the Middle East.
At the start of 2017, the Middle East is unravelling as the artificial borders drawn by Europeans after World War I are dissolving along ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The nominal states of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya have ceased to exist in practical terms. Lebanon and Bahrain are on the brink of collapse. The rise and prospective reunification of Kurdistan threatens the present borders of Iran and Turkey.
In 2006, the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice coined the term “New Middle East” and it was subsequently heralded by Ms Rice and the Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert at the height of the Anglo-American sponsored Israeli siege of Lebanon. This actually was a confirmation of an Anglo-American-Israeli “military roadmap” in the Middle East. This project, which has been in the planning stages for several years, consists in creating an arc of instability, chaos and violence extending from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria to Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Iran and the borders of Afghanistan.
The aftermath of the Iraq War and the outbreak of the Arab Spring were just the first tremors of this regional reconfiguration. If history offers some clue, let’s assess how the efforts to redraw the Middle Eastern map are on and what the future has in store for the region.
In 1990, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein evidently assumed the West would give him a pass when he invaded Kuwait, considering the upheavals accompanying the end of the Cold War. Though it’s true that he did receive support from the West and the Gulf oil monarchies in his war against Iran, what is more than evident now is that the Iraqi leader had miscalculated. Within a few months, a huge US-led military force consisting of hundreds of thousands of troops was deployed to the Gulf to protect Saudi Arabia and ‘liberate’ Kuwait. This war marked the beginning of a period of US regional hegemony that would last two decades, the most striking expression being the Iraq war (2003-11). With the Syrian war, however, the United States has been unable to increase its role in the region due to a number of constraints.
In the current regional scenario, against a lower but still significant US presence, Russia has returned assertively following a post–Cold War hiatus, China is filling in the gaps, and the European Union remains cautious. Room thus remains for Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, each of which wants to expand its regional influence, with or without the help of international actors. Turkey, a NATO member, clearly fell within the Western camp, but it could share priorities with Russia, as today in Syria. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated increasing separation from the United States based on criticisms over Washington’s insufficient involvement in the Syrian war and the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal. The Islamic Republic, for its part, has emerged from its isolation, aided by Russian and Chinese involvement in the region. Furthermore, the nuclear deal gives Iran additional financial resources and helps normalise its relations with the West.
Russia’s vigorous re-entry in the Middle East by way of the Syrian war has been on the pretext of defence of Bashar al-Assad. It even invoked international law to justify its action completely ignoring the fact that by this logic, any foreign interference against the government of a sovereign state is a casus belli (“an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war). China also shares the same position and the China-Russia duo does not want the West, through the United Nations, to intervene in their fragile peripheries. Although Russia’s maritime base in Tartus, Syria and its radar stations in the country do not constitute essential strategic interests, they uphold Syria as an ally in a region where conflicts quickly gather international implications. The Chinese, given their energy needs, see access to Middle East hydrocarbon reserves as deeply attractive. Finally, in the terrorism embodied in the Islamic State, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing perceive echoes of local destabilizing militants, namely in southern Russia and western China.
The EU’s absence from the Middle East is evident on many planes. In the 2011 Libya campaign, for example, the US provided 70 percent of operational logistics, despite an Anglo-French presence. In August 2013, France found itself alone in Syria after the British refusal to engage militarily, and especially after the US about-face, when President Obama cancelled the bombing of Syria reportedly in response to the regime’s alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. Furthermore, any French or British activism in Syria is hindered by the slowness and timidity of collective decision-making within the EU, which itself appears highly dependent on NATO and, therefore, American decisions. Economically, the EU is also relegated to a minor role in addressing the enormous financial capacity of the Gulf oil monarchies and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
The Middle East is thus now more internally focused than in past decades. It has fallen prey to a lasting conflict among three regional powers—Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia—which aspire to occupy the spaces vacated by a dwindling Western military-political apparatus.
In October 2013, Ammar Moussawi, the head of external relations for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political party, stated in an interview that the regional conflict would last a “long” time—with “long” equivalent to several decades in Western terms. Moussawi, however, did not refer directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains a Hezbollah priority. He did speak, however, of the proxy conflict in Syria, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran. Although he did not explicitly mention the Sunni-Shiite element, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah had done so two months earlier, accusing Saudi Arabia of sparking a new fitna(discord). In the Syrian war, Hezbollah and Iran see an existential crisis, with the perceived Sunni offensive supported by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the states that fear Iran’s rehabilitation and expanded regional reach, as facilitated by the nuclear deal.
Indeed, the Middle East lies on the world’s largest “shatterbelt”—an area described felicitously by American geographer Saul Cohen as the region of contact between the world’s great sea and land powers. Today, another Middle East heart beats inside the shatterbelt, raising the pressure of conflict. World powers such as Russia, China, the United States, and Europe are assessing their regional interests and the measures they will take to achieve them. The conflict itself, meanwhile, can only grow, as the Yemen example shows, given the freeing up of local actors. But amid the great instability, a new Westphalian order is emerging in the Middle East.
One must reflect and think, as the international community chatters, ostensibly, about fighting terrorism, fighting extremism, and supporting ‘legitimacy’ through conferences and deals designed, in reality the intention is to facilitate the redrawing of the Middle East map. The Middle East is indeed at a threshold of a regional situation totally different from the, one in place around 100 years ago. In this new situation there will surely be winners, losers and the departed.