The Middle East in Turbulence:Making Sense from Strategic Confusion

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 4 Sep - Oct 2015
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Genesis of the problem and an in-depth analysis of the current situation
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Sunday, September 20, 2015

My interest in the Middle East’s strategic environment began as a young student during the Six Day War in Jun 1967; it has never ended. The cold war days were good, at least everything was neatly packed into blocs and you knew who was against whom until of course Anwar Sadat decided to change the course of history with his agreement for rapprochement with Israel; and the Ayatollahs came to power in 1979 turning Middle East politics on its head. In 2015 I tend to believe that the situation has never been so confounded. Someone who has not been following the history of the region will be reasonably flummoxed by the nature of friendships, alliances, interests and enmities. This essay sets out to determine some sense from the prevailing disorder which seems to be trending towards overflowing the frontiers of the region.

The common threads which seem to be at the bottom of it all are the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide, Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has increasingly been pushed to the background but re-emerges at inconvenient times, and the rising tide of non-state Radical Islam which has global ambitions. It is difficult to peg a date or even a year from where we can commence the analysis of the situation keeping in mind that the 20th Century and the first decade of this Millennium, important as they were in creating the turbulence are now simply history. A good point to start is the year 2011 from when onwards the dynamics changed quite drastically.

A couple of things happened in 2011. The US packed up and left Iraq to its fate; no conflict termination was envisaged, planned or executed. The same year the White Lily Revolution of Egypt began as a part of the Arab Spring. It promised much but floundered at the altar of Mohamed Morsi’s hurried and attempted ideological changes. It was also the year that the longest reigning dictator of the Middle East, Muamar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed in an uncontrolled but sponsored action by the West. That is a lot of things in one region in one year but hold your breath there is more to come.

In Mar 2011 the civil war in Syria began after mistreatment of some protesters against civil rights in a city called Deraa. There has been no peace in Syria since then. A month or so later Osama bin Laden (OBL) was killed in a US raid on his hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbotabad. His devious organization, the Al Qaida, could never be the same again. Ayman al Zawahiri, his deputy, neither has the dynamism nor the charisma to lead a global terrorist organization. The seeds for the passing of the mantle had already been sown a few years earlier by a man called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who led the Al Qaida in Iraq with displayed gusto and verve. He was killed in a drone attack in Iraq in 2006 but not before he had sown the seeds and created the core group of what would emerge ultimately as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2014.

Two more issues of significance relate to 2011. The commercialisation of shale gas, or what may be called the beginning of the shale gas revolution in the US, commenced. It effectively reduced the US commercial interest in the Middle East which has always been based on the availability of hydro-carbons. This automatically translated to the beginning of the dilution of US-Saudi relations. That relationship dictated much of the discourse of the history of the Middle East, especially in the last quarter of the 20th Century and the first decade of the Millennium. Not to the date but these events did coincide with the decline of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s maverick leader, and his eventual downfall in Aug 2013. This meant the initial indications of the willingness of Iran to dilute its stance on the nuclear issue which ultimately led to the signing of the Nuclear deal between the P5 and Iran.

So, how are all these issues, which have been ticked against 2011, relevant to the current situation? Here is where the linkages have to be read carefully and in no particular order.

The US withdrawal from Iraq was under internal pressure and financial constraints, with no real payoffs apparently emerging from continuance of the presence. However, when big powers execute regime change they have to be mindful of the side effects. This is the big lesson emerging from this entire withdrawal; it is a not a question of getting up one day and deciding to leave. As much as conflict initiation was a planned event, conflict termination had to be planned too. However, as is wont to happen,this stage took place without keeping an eye on the emerging dynamics of 2011 and its aftermath. The Shia regime in Baghdad overplayed its hand while the Sunni Baathists, in disarray after 2003, reorganized themselves. The latter provided the intellectual and organizational power in the setting up of the next renegade organization – the ISIL. Three important things happened at this time. First, Libya disintegrated virtually under western watch and the military hardware pumped into that region started finding its way to the Syrian civil war. Second, with Syria now on the boil and eyes shut out from Northern Iraq, the emerging mass of ISIL only grew stronger.

Third, the one nation which could have stopped this was Saudi Arabia but in the emerging milieu it was in sulk, primarily due to the downturn in its relationship with the US, fully sensing that its strategic significance was waning. If it stepped into Syria and North Iraq to curb the emerging ISIL it would only strengthen Iran’s Shia linkages in Syria; the Hezbollah and the Allawites would be at advantage. The Saudis were mindful of Iran’s emergence from the extremist era and its proclivity to open itself for negotiation meant that for the first time since that landmark year 1979, Iran could make a positive dent in the strategic environment of the region. Saudi Arabia did what any nation in its position would do; it clutched at the straws and these were available in the form of Israel with whom it’s mutual hatred for and interests against Iran, blossomed.

Let us cut to 2014. When the ISIL (now Islamic State) broke out on the television screens in Jun 2014 the coming storm had been visualized a few months before that. Yet, no one could predict the swiftness of events and the inability of any nation, agency or organization to do anything. Which were these nations?

Egypt had been marginalized by its internal politics. The Saudis were in two minds because anything against Sunnis of any ilk would add weight to Iran. They anyway were still hopeful that the US was there to bail them out as happened so many times in the past.

Turkey, not mentioned so far, is really a European country although not a part of EU. The EU’s reluctance to admit it into the elite fold has been driving it eastwards and perhaps southwards. Recep Erdogan, the Turkish leader whoserule threatened the dilution of Turkey’s carefully crafted secular credentials could have made Turkey the most important player in this situation. Already smarting under an identity crisis and mindful of the PKK (Kurd) insurgency in the east and the south Turkey was worried about officially battling the ISIL. It could have sealed its borders to prevent the flow of military hardware and contraband into and out of North Syria and Iraq. That would have brought it into the conflict, with its Army having to physically stop militant movement. It would mean going against Sunni interests since Turkey prefers projected neutrality between Iran and the Saudis.Once the Turk hostages held by the ISIL were released, Turkey finally sealed its borders.

One phenomenon will have to be assumed by all nations who face the threats of penetration of borders by aliens, undesirables, military hardware and contraband. Borders can never be sealed a hundred percent; loopholes will always remain just as Europe is realising today.

With the alliance of Arab and western nations for the conduct of air strikes against the ISIL it was expected that the latter’s capability would dilute considerably. That has not happened remarkably in any way; in fact in the midst of the campaign the ISIL has even captured Ramadi in Iraq.

With the turbulence created by the ISIL yet another conflict opened up in the south in Yemen where the Saudis feared an Iranian attempt to surround it. While no ground action has taken place the Saudis have put together an alliance to use air power against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. This war too is not progressing in any positive direction.

That leaves the situation in Middle East with three sectarian conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq with another near conflict in the Sinai region of Egypt where the ISIL has attempted to find its space. Libya is a hell hole with virtual division of its territory into fiefdoms of warlords. Jordan is too near the war zone for any comfort and is anyway the virtual launch pad for all material movement into Northern Iraq. We haven’t even mentioned Israel in context. Its problem in Gaza and the West Bank remain on hold pending a fresh trigger. The sectarian conflicts around it are not helping in any way except taking away attention and making it increasingly restive.

No one expects any improvement in the near future. The indication of this comes from the fact that patient populations have withstood war and destruction for long in this region but mass movement out of, not the war zone, but the geographical realm has never been a phenomenon. Now it is happening from everywhere; North Africa and Syria make up the bulk but there are other affected populations too. Sooner than later, there will be a complete breakdown of economies and mass movement of population will be a compulsion. The situation now requires management like never before. A hands off policy by the big powers is not an option now that the ISIL appears to be dominating the discourse. And now Russia has entered the fray. That needs an explanation because for the first time since 1979-89 the Russian military is strong arming its way internationally.

Russia is worried more than it makes evident. The ISIL is a major threat to everyone but Russia perceives that threat more than anyone else. The ISIL’s entry into Afghanistan brings it closer to Central Asia, Russia’s near abroad region. Its own regions of Dagestan and Chechnya are not too stable either. If the lucrative drug trade of Af-Pak region falls into the hands of the ISIL in alliance with a Taliban faction, the former could well have the means to push north. Russia had hoped that the US and its alliance could defeat the ISIL in the Middle East. The aerial campaign has not succeeded and the US perception of the situation in Syria does not match that of Russia. The situation seems to be slipping as far as Russia is concerned for whom the only way to resolve this is to address the core issue and that is Syria. There is greyness beyond recognition there as the US and its alliance is apparently confused with two adversaries – Bashir Assad and the ISIL and does not appear to be succeeding in stabilizing the situation. Putin’s Russia is treating this very seriously and perceives that its traditional support to Assad will help in stemming the tide of the ISIL. The US does not appear on the same side of this perception. Already the first aerial action by the Russians is underway and a possible ground commitment to protect the Northern Syrian port of Latikia could be next.

The above changes things quite dramatically. The Russian commitment also appears to stem from the fact that the US perceives Bashar Assad’s opponents as secularists which is apparently far from the truth since shades of Salafis have joined the opposition to Assad apparently under Saudi support. The one country which could turn the tables on the ISIL is Iran but over thirty years of mistrust cannot vapourise in a day and Israel remains the stumbling block solidly backed by the Saudis; so that option is a virtual no go. 

It appears we have travelled the distance in this essay and come back to the same point of confusion where we started. Quite obviously the situation is far beyond the bloc based politics of the Cold War. Can Russia and the US cooperate in identifying a common adversary in the ISIL and pushing other agendas to the background? The US disinterest in the Middle East is short lived and its return in more robust form is a matter of time. The emerging migration of displaced people to Europe, almost uncontrollable may force the EU to demand US commitment towards resolving the situation. It is clear that the Middle East is closer to more confusion and more greyness in its strategic environment, a specter far more dangerous than what the pre-war situations of 1914 or 1939 ever