THE MIDDLE EASTERN GAMBLE
civil war in Syria with no solution in sight and that has
recently, since the arrival of both Russian and Iranian troops,
become more and more international. Another conflict in Yemen has
degenerated from internal strife to all-out war after the Saudi
military intervention and has now the menacing traits of a
religious – Zaydis vs Sunni – and political – Iran vs Saudi Arabia
The presence of Islamic militias in Syria and Iraq whose declared intention is that of installing a caliphate that goes well beyond the present borders of both countries. A silent conflict between the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf and the Shia of Iran for the hegemony over the entire region.
A so-called “Arab Spring” that has not produced any progress or result in terms of democracy (with the exception of the pale Tunisian example), but that has instead favored repression and restoration, as in Egypt. And, as the Libyan case shows, any power void generates social chaos and the growth of radical Islam.
The Kurdish issue is now also back in the spotlight after Turkey decided to change its approach with regard to the ISIS and has balanced its fight against the caliphate with a renewed resort to crush the PKK following years of truce and under the table peace negotiations. The Kurds have benefited from their fight against the ISIS both in Iraq with the Peshmerga and in Syria with the YPG. This circumstance has led them to insist in their demand for greater autonomy, whether in terms or statehood or not. The PKK is labeled a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey, but it had become a meaningless detail during their struggle to hold onto the city of Kobane or while they saved thousands of Yazidis from the siege put in place by al Baghdadi's militias. The Turkish attempt to demonize a community of 30 million people scattered across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran will unlikely succeed.
The ambiguity of Turkish foreign policy, one of the most influential countries in the entire region, has also had an impact on events. It is still unclear how much Ankara is willing to fight the spread of Islamic extremism. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been clear on two aspects: the support to the Muslim Brotherhood (the AKP is its Turkish version) and its opposition to Bashar al Assad's regime. The struggle against the ISIS should diminish the destabilization that has followed a series of terrorist attacks on Turkish soil. On the other hand, this also weakens the armed rebellion against Damascus.
The circumstance has also been exploited by Ankara that has yes bombed the ISIS (although sporadically and on a limited scale), but also the PKK's safe havens in Iraq (systematically and continuously) following two years of truce. The renewal of the fight against the Kurdish Workers Party is dictated by domestic political needs. Nationalism is necessary to counter the rise of the pro-Kurdish HDP party that entered Parliament for the first time during the last elections. And a new vote is due in November.
The Palestinian issue is also lagging behind after decades of failures. A new Intifada is at the door given Israel's intransigence. The case for Palestine is influenced by a series of factors: the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, the contrast between Israel and the Hezbollah, the Palestinian refugee camps disseminated across the region that risk to explode if nothing is done. The recent Israeli bombardments of Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine camps will not improve the situation. After all, the war between Israel and the Hezbollah or Hamas has never ended. It's a silent conflict, but still a war.
The Muslim Brotherhood is yet another open wound, them being one of the most widespread Islamic organizations in the Middle East. Now marginalized, they are deemed a terrorist group in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but are very close to Hamas and benefit from the support of both Turkey and Qatar. The Confraternity is at a crossroads. They have to decide whether to fight their way legally or go once again underground, as the recent events in Egypt would suggest.
Overall, there is a very low degree of democracy in the Middle East. This is a characteristic that we find across the entire region, with the exception of Israel, whose nationalist governments are instead pushing towards a theocratic agenda. Democracy per se is not part of the aspirations of many Arabs, given its a product they hardly have ever tasted and whose meaning they cannot fully grasp. And when they did experience the fall of totalitarian regimes, the end result was social anarchy. With or without democracy, the Arab citizen suffers from the hardships of life, is against inequality when he is deprived of his wealth, nurses resentment and grief, fears repression. This is what basically happens in all Arab nations. Such a combination of elements could well become central in future developments in the Middle East.
The negotiations that have led to a deal on the Iranian nuclear programme have ignited a chain of events whose impact will have to be verified with time. Iran without sanctions has the strength to return to become an economic power in the region. Iran not ostracized on the political front will play a better military role on the chessboard of the Middle East. All these circumstances will alter the geo-strategic balance in the region and will accentuate the clash between Sunnis and Shia. A first tangible consequence has been an arms race in Sunni countries, some of which may soon also seek nuclear weapons, as some news coming from Saudi Arabia would suggest.
Caliphates are also spreading on the path shown by the ISIS: Sinai, Sirte, Derna, areas in the south of Tunisia, the north of Mali. These are all potential hotbeds for tensions and further social destabilization. Will they be eliminated or will they continue to spread?
There is then a country like Bahrein where a Sunni minority rules despotically over a Shia majority. This has been possible thanks to the military support from both the Saudis and the Emirates. Can they continue to hold on to power? Then there is a country ruled by an Ibadi sultan. It's Oman, capable of keeping at large from Middle Eastern turbulences. But Sultan Qaboos is 75 years old and has no heirs. Will the country proceed smoothly towards a handover of power without a war between those aspiring to the throne?
The different civil wars across the region have also highlighted the persecution of religious minorities. Communities that have peacefully coexisted for centuries in the Middle East have taken the role of victim or oppressor according to the circumstances. It was the Shia in Sunni lands, then the opposite, and then the Christians, the Yazidis, the Druses, the Alevites, the Sabeans, the Alawites... Such a climate of religious intolerance will have long term effects. How long before a religious dialogue is restored?
There are several countries in the region that are too small, such as Jordan, or historically too unstable, like Lebanon, to prevent the danger from the spread of military-guided Islamic radicalism. Beirut in particular, where institutions are assigned on the basis of religious affiliations, is extremely sensible to what happens in Syria. The ties between Damascus and Beirut are part of recent history. Will Lebanon survive in the future if a different political or territorial configuration takes form in Damascus?
The Bab el Mandeb strait
The Middle East has always been the object of the aims of international powers both for its geographic position and for its energy reserves. In the past, and especially during the Cold War, events were dictated from outside the region. Every country fell under the respective sphere of influence. Every quarrel was resolved at a higher level, by the two superpowers. The fall of the Soviet empire has created a void. Many countries were left without international tutelage and new conflicts arose.
Presently, both the United States and Russia, although asymmetrically, have the tendency to influence Middle Eastern affairs not in search of oil (both Moscow and Washington are self-sufficient in terms of supplies), but of geo-strategic positioning. The control over the Hormuz Strait, the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the control of the Red Sea and the access to the Suez Canal, the possibility of maintaining a military presence in the Mediterranean.
The United States being the sole superpower still in service have lately adopted a disengagement policy to put a remedy to the previous Administration's war mongering attitude. By doing so, the US have created yet more void and have not resolved a series of open issues, like Iraq or Afghanistan. US foreign policy has also paid the price of indecision when it came to putting a halt to conflicts. Some decisions were simply wrong (like the unconditioned support for the Arab Spring in Egypt or the military defenestration of Muammar Gaddafi) and this has generated yet more hesitation. Overall, the uncritical support of Israel has put the United States in a tight spot. And, if until now, the United States operated in a regime of monopoly in the region, now things are changing. The Iranian nuclear deal and their role in Syrian affairs has brought the Russians back under the spotlight. The circumstance may well fuel more tensions between the two powers. Will there be room for synergy in the fight against Islamic extremism? Probably yes when each actor's interests will converge.
Given such an intricate connection between political, religious or military controversies across the Middle East, all variables have to be taken into account when a solution to any issue is sought. Its much like a domino effect whose outcome is unknown. There are several question marks that are still unanswered. At the same time, each time a chain of events whose consequences are unpredictable is put in motion. Not everything is lost. It could well be that some of the negative circumstances that we've mentioned could produce a positive outcome if only a good synergy was put in place. It's not a matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, both irrational feelings, but of being realistic. After all, in the Middle East every time a card is played it's like sitting at a poker table. Each player gambles, bluffs or raises the bid.