The state of turbulence in the Middle East

24 December 2019, 08:00

From Cold War volatility to 21st century turbulence – the dramatic rise of complex unpredictable instability in the Middle East

The ongoing security situation in the Middle East has reached a level of complexity that far exceeds anything seen during the Cold War era, or even during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. Historically, the region had been constantly on the precipice of major regional conflagration with the festering Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948, compounded by strategic volatility to the region inevitably by the Cold War, as the Arab-Israeli confrontation became a reflection of the broader Soviet-US competition worldwide. Still, despite the constant threats it posed, that period also witnessed relatively predictable confrontations that largely fit within the binary logic of the East-West divide and the attempts of the US to isolate the Soviet Union and prevent the spread of its influence across the Global South as a whole. This was part of the global American strategy of the age, and the USSR responded to it by adopting under Khrushchev a counter-strategy of “leap-frogging” aimed at overcoming the effects of America’s regional alliances by means of: 1) knocking pivotal states (Iraq, Egypt) out of those alliances; 2) reaching out deep across those geographical barriers into traditional Western areas of influence such as Southern Yemen and Libya, and 3) leveraging any new Soviet ally by having it support pro-Soviet regime-changes and movements all across the region. As part of this strategy, Nasser’s Egypt was spreading Arab socialism as far as southern Yemen; and Libya and Syria supported terrorist movements such as the PLO and others all across the region. This concerted Soviet effort in the Middle East led to an ill-conceived response by the conservative powers in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia, also endorsed by the United States, to try to counter the spread of Communism, Arab socialism and Baathism by supporting groups and movements – both Sunni and Shi’a – that purported to espouse a conservative Islamic ideology. Without exception, all the status-quo powers in the region, together with the US, mistook the nascent Islamist radical movements of the 1970s for conservative, status-quo ones, and the results of this major ideological miscalculation still reverberate across not only the Middle East, but the entire world almost half a century later with the global metastatic spread of radical Islamist ideologies of the Sunni and Shi’a denominations. The latter, of course, received a potent boost by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that took down the Shah of Iran as the most important US ally in the region outside of NATO’s Turkey. Fortunately for the US and the stability of the region, the years of skillful diplomacy led by Henry Kissinger resulted in Egypt moderating and falling back into the US camp as a critical ally against not only the Soviet Union and its clients in the region, but also against the rising Sunni radicalism, within Egypt and across the region.

Four decades after the breakthrough of Egypt-Israeli peace at Camp David in 1978 this world of relatively stable confrontations and alliances bound by predictable rational choices in the Middle East is no more. It was destroyed by the combined effects of a number of geopolitical cataclysms and conflicts in the region, among which: a series of regime-changes after 2003 that did not result on increased regional stability; the effects of the Arab Spring after 2010 that did not produce the expected democratization of the region; the constant multilateral diplomatic stalemates over a number of broken ceasefires in Syria; the unsuccessful US attempts to contain Iran through a tough sanctions regime. All of those were compounded by a number of humanitarian crisis of cataclysmic proportions generated by the civil and sectarian wars in Syria and Yemen and the near collapse of those states and societies, and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan trying to defeat a global Jihadist movement that successfully jumps across borders in search for new safe havens for its terrorist activities, and constantly shifts its identities and ideological rationale in order to adopt and survive the changing realities on the group.

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Thus, the predictability, however volatile, of the Cold War security equation in the Middle East has been replaced nowadays by a rising level of complexity of the state and non-state actors’ interplay and the driving forces behind their moves, which has reached the level of unpredictability described in international relations theory as “turbulence”. Its latest manifestation was the sudden, unexpected and unjustified decision by the US President Donald Trump to withdraw US support for the Kurds in Syria who had been fighting alongside US troops against DAESH, and we instrumental in defeating that radical group in Syria. The current crisis involving the Kurds, the largest nation in the Middle East without its own independent state, has its roots decades back to the years of realpolitik played by the US that was trying to navigate among its regional allies and clients by providing support for some at the expense of others. However, the current sudden unraveling of the US-Kurdish strategic bonds of the last couple of decades, could deal precipitate the collapse of the already fading US alliances across the region and dip the Middle East as a whole in a pool of strategic, long-term turbulence, which will effectively prevent the US from having any meaningful positive impact on the region, and will usher in an era of a joint Russian-Iranian hegemony over the region.


The Plight of the Syrian Kurds and its global implications for America’s strategic credibility

On Sunday, 13 October 2019, barely hours after the US President Donald Trump ordered the evacuation of all US forces in Syria, mostly US advisors and special forces working with the Kurdish forces there, the leadership of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces issued a statement that it had reached an agreement with the Syrian Army to enter the territory currently controlled by the Kurdish forces, and begin deploying along the Syrian-Turkish border. The declared rationale for such a dramatic change of course was “to liberate the areas entered by the Turkish army, and protect the territorial integrity of Syria”, as the Assad regime-controlled media hasten to claim that the Syrian army already headed for the Kurdish-controlled cities of Manbij and Kobani. This decision by the Kurdish leadership is however tragically, the only logical option for survival currently left to that nation in Syria that has been divided by geography and history and partitioned among its powerful neighbors for centuries .The Kurds have been effectively betrayed by Donald Trump, the President of the nation that had protected their compatriots in Iraq for the last three decades, and that had liberated them from the regime of Saddam Hussein. Trump justified his completely unexpected move by the moronic statement that “The Kurds didn’t help us with Normandy” – which happens to be true about most of the countries and nations considered US allies in the Middle East – without the President singling them out as he did the Kurds. Despite their presumptive “no show” at Normandy, as Trump mistakenly sees it, the Kurds had actually repaid their liberation from the brutal regimes of both Saddam and Assad many times over by fighting against DAESH since 2014, first virtually alone, then serving as the main ground forces of the global coalition supported primarily by US airstrikes. The Kurds ultimately played a central role in the defeat of the radical Islamist group in Syria and Iraq, while the US provided training and support that were considered an axiomatic US gesture toward a nation that until last-week had been a staunch even the pivotal US ally in the war against DAESH in Syria and Iraq. Now this nation has been abandoned, yet again, to the forces of regional powers, after having paid with its blood for the liberation of the entire region from a terrorist quasi-state with previously unmatched global lethal outreach and ambitions. 

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a US administration has supported the Kurdish aspirations for a short period, only to abandon them in a game of regional “realpolitik”. In 1972, the then director of CIA, Richard Helms, med with Kurdish representatives to inform them that the US has decided to finally support their armed struggle against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Soon thereafter, however, those US efforts were abandoned as Henry Kissinger struck a secret deal with the Shaf of Iran, who was concerned that the rise of the Kurdish independence movement in Iraq could also spill over into the Kurdish areas of his own realm. Thus, what we are seeing happen nowadays with the Kurds in Syria had already happened almost half a century ago to their brethren in Iraq. It is only that back in that period the US foreign policy personified by Henry Kissinger was driven by a rationale, which albeit heartless, was based on the hard cold facts of Cold War politics that demanded that the US heeded to the needs and requests of the Shah’s Iran as its most important strategic ally in the Middle East in that age. The current move by President Trump has nothing to do with the cold pragmatism of the Kissinger-style realpolitik of old, as the US is in effect not gaining anything with that act of betrayal. On the contrary, this dramatic reversal by the administration of the US policy course toward a critical trusted local ally such as the Kurds, will undoubtedly have major negative implications not only for the security of the entire region, but for the strategic credibility of the US as a global superpower for generations to come. It is true that the Trump Administration inherited an already highly complicated security situation in the Middle East, but it also has done little to nothing to solve any of the above complex problems, either diplomatically or militarily. Instead, its actions and inactions have effectively only exacerbated them, thus emboldening hostile powers such as Russia and Iran to fill in the void left from the absent Us hegemony with their own hegemonic ambitions for the region.

To put in in a historical perspective covering the past two decades, the US policy toward the entire region has gradually moved from a direct, massive and overly engaged “hands on” military involvement under Bush; to the verbally committed, but inconsistent and hesitant policy under Obama who declared and then failed to act upon multiple “redlines” for the Syrian regime, and finally to the current chaotic and erratic decision-making under Trump. An action such as withdrawing the US support for the Kurds really has no underlying rationale, even a cynical one that could benefit the US long-term strategic one. It only responds to the news cycle in the US by serving to trigger yet another political and humanitarian crisis in the Middle East that is meant to be a distractor for the US public from the impending impeachment procedures against an embattled President. This is also a great gift for America’s strategic competitors in the Middle East, Iran and Russia, but one that could turn also into a costly trap for Turkey, a NATO ally, that has rushed in the Kurdish areas emboldened by Trump’s withdrawal, driven by its own strategic calculus whereby any prospect of an independent Kurdish state along Turkey’s borders is viewed as an existential threat for the future security of Turkey. 


The US allies in the Middle East are moving from balancing with the US against Iran to bandwagoning with Russia

Unfortunately for the current and future US foreign policy prospects, the current misguided decision to abandon a critical ally without prior warning or a just cause is likely to deal yet another severe blow to America’s reputation as the hegemon not only within the region, but also on a global scale. While the issue has multiple complex dimensions, to include a humanitarian one, it also follows the inexorable logic of the breaking of alliances and their realignment that stems from two fundamental types of allies’ behavior – “balancing” and “bandwagoning”. The first is better known and understood as it stems from the rational choices of smaller, weaker nations (for example the Gulf States) that try to balance against an aspiring regional hegemon (Iraq in the 1980s, Iran nowadays) by pulling together their efforts and also seeking the protection and support of a distant hegemonic power, such as the United States. This formula worked perfectly well during the Cold War and into the first decade of the 21stcentury. The political and social crises described above, the gradual disengagements of the US from the Middle East during the Obama and currently the Trump administration, has resulted in a loss of a number of pivotal US allies (Egypt), and the gradual reorientation of others toward Russia, as the least of both evils in trying to curb the rise of Iranian influence across the entire arc of instability in the Middle East. Thus, as American hegemony in the Middle East wanes, America’s alliances unravel leaving the region wide open to the hybrid expansionism of Iran and Russia. 

Bandwagoning in international relations occurs when a state aligns with a stronger, adversarial power, therefore it is a strategy employed by states that find themselves in a weak position. The logic behind this is that a weaker state should aligns itself with a stronger adversary. The Sunni Arab states in the Middle East consider Iran to be an existential enemy, and seek to counter its hybrid expansionism across the region by any means possible. With their traditional US hegemon seems largely distracted by domestic issues or even disinterested in pursuing a tougher course on Iran based on the constant failure of President Trump to follow through on his multiple verbal threats against Iran following Iran’s bold perpetrations against the freedom of navigation of tankers in the Gulf and the ongoing Iranian hybrid war against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf coalition in Yemen; the US Arab allies are also seeking other vectors in trying to guarantee their security. One such important vector for countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, the two staunchest traditional Sunni Arab allies, has become approaching Russia which is in a tactical alliance with Iran in Syria and elsewhere, in order to try to earn its favor – through oil, nuclear and arms deals and other enticements – in the hope that it will also influence Iran and reduce the pressure on those countries. Russia has positioned itself as the new kingmaker in the Middle East – everyone wants to talk to them following their success in preventing the collapse of the Assad regime. They are the only power that successfully simultaneously engages with all actors in the Middle East – the Arabs and Iran; the Sunni and the Shi’a, the Israelis and the Arabs; the Turks and the Kurds – without those actors objecting to Russia’s approaching all those seemingly incompatible interlocutors. 

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This type of behavior can therefore be interpreted as a form of “bandwagoning” with the lesser of the two threats in the Russia-Iran alliance, or as outright attempt to balance and compensate for the loss of the United States as a regional hegemon by ceding this role to Russia. Both of those behaviors will have negative consequences for the future role of the United States in the region, as America’s traditional allies across the Middle East move try to their survival in the face of America’s disengagement from the region. With the examples of the Kurds now betrayed and abandoned by the US, and turning toward Russia and potentially Iran, more and more of America’s allies in the region would be forced to make that tough but realistic choice. 


Are there any good options left for the US still?

The US must begin addressing the above alarming process of the loss of its alliances in the Middle East even if it means accepting the fact that the current level of complexity and turbulence in the region has exceeded the ability of any individual US administration (and least of all the current one) to handle all those multiple issues and crisis simultaneously, let alone solve them in one stroke. Instead, it must identify the most pressing ones in order to prevent what is still a gradual collapse from becoming precipitous, with more and more allies rushing out of America’s orbit and into Russia’s. It must reassure its Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf of its unwavering commitment to their survival as independent states in the face of Iran’s attempts to leverage their Shi’a minorities to destabilize their societies. It must restore its support for the Kurds in Syria in the name of preventing another rise of DAESH, and in order to deny Assad’s forces the total control over the entire territory of Syria, which would be tantamount to a strategic victory not only or that regime, but for Russia and Iran, too. It must find a way to reassure Turkey regarding its legitimate security concerns by leveraging all options that are left through the NATO membership of that country, in order to strengthen the trans-Atlantic bond and not allow Turkey to be seduced by Russia away from NATO. That would have heavy consequences for both NATO’s security along its Southern and Eastern flanks, and for Turkey itself down the road, as it discovers that the “gifts” Russia brings in terms of military technology or security guarantees all come at the price of heavy dependence in multiple other spheres – from energy to politics and diplomacy. 

All of those actions will require strategic vision, diplomatic acumen, institutional continuity and personal backbone, which the current US administration is apparently woefully lacking. Still, America’s strategic interests in a region as critical as the Middle East must transcend any temporary setbacks brought about by the personal failures and lack of vision of one President or another. If not, the region will be plunged into many more decades of turbulence with the sudden loss of America’s hegemony, with the other viable alternative left to the few remaining stable states being to accept the terms of the Great Game imposed by “Pax Russica”, lest they are forced to accept the terms of surrender or even total collapse under the ongoing hybrid onslaught of “Pax Iranica”.

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Mark Voyger

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