November 19, 2017

The Middle East – a barometer for the world’s peace?

Corneliu Pivariu. Photographer: Ionus Paraschiv.

By Corneliu Pivariu.

The First World War led, among others, to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and that brought with it a new configuration of the Middle East. One of the consequences of the Second World War was the collapse of the British and French colonial empires with the downsizing of France’s and Great Britain’s influence in the Middle East and, after the 1956 Suez Crisis, the USA’s and Russia’s (USSR at the time) influence became one of the important characteristics of the region. Gradually, up to the end of the Cold War, Russia (USSR) lost its key positions in the Middle East mainly in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Libya including the naval bases at the Mediterranean and succeeded only in preserving its positions in Syria and the small naval base in Tartous.

The end of the Cold War and then the collapse of the USSR was followed by a period in which the USA’s influence in the Middle East increased, yet different errors committed by the Administration in Washington in managing its relations with the countries in the area (including Iraq’s invasion and the actions carried out in this country) parallel with Moscow’s actions of recovering the lost positions, mainly during president Putin’s last mandate, led to a spectacular, we may say,  increase  of the Kremlin’s influence in  the Middle East.

All these were favored by the American foreign policy (or, better said, the lack of an appropriate foreign policy) in the Middle East during the two mandates of Barack Obama. Nevertheless, mention should be made of the American intention of redrawing the borders of the Middle East during George W. Bush Jr.’s mandates, materialized in the  map of the illustrious unknown Ralph Peters and the denomination of the New Middle East used by the American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in June 2006, during her visit to Israel. The map (analyzed by us, too, even from the very beginning of issuing Geostrategic Pulse) contains numerous errors which neither the time that passed so far has validated, nor the foreseeable future will do. However, it was used in the framework of some training courses for NATO high ranking officers.

 The so-called Arab Spring grew towards complicating even more the geopolitical developments in the Middle East and North Africa. After what the USA and the European Union (but not Israel) saw, during the first years, an evolution towards democratization  following the elimination of dictatorial regimes, the stage of ungovernable states with huge economic and social problems was reached, the violence increased and the self-titled Islamic State (Daesh) emerged and,  apart from taking control of important areas in Syria and Iraq, it turned to committing  terrorist acts in Europe as well.

The problem of the refugees from the Middle East became a global concern and especially of the EU.

The evolution of the civil war in Syria brought Russia again at the forefront of geopolitics in the Middle East as the Kremlin cleverly exploited ever since 2013 the USA’s and its Western allies’ irresolution, as well as the lack of EU’s unitary action. Russia intervened directly, militarily as well, in supporting Bashar Al Assad regime, even from the fall of 2014, by developing a system of maritime and terrestrial bases that led to strengthening its position and role not only in Syria but also in the whole of the Middle East.

The never-ending conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites evolved to Iran’s benefit which, after the elimination of Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, strengthened even more its influence in this country and through the important support granted to Assad regime, to the Lebanese Hezbollah and to Hamas movement is strengthening the achievement of its strategic goal of having a terrestrial corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, by profiting from the dissensions affecting the relations among the Arab countries with Sunni majorities.

New tensions emerged among the Arab countries of the Gulf on this background marked by the June 2017 diplomatic crisis between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries (Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) including breaking off relations, blocking the terrestrial borders, banning maritime and air traffic and other economic sanctions. The tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are not new, they date back since some decades after Ryiadh withdrew its ambassador to Doha (from 2002 to 2008 and later in 2014) and on June 5th, 2017 it broke off completely the relations with Qatar.

The small Qatari peninsula has important oil and gas reserves (the third country in the world as far as gas is concerned) and is the greatest world exporter of LNG, a position that might be soon taken over by Australia. Qatar is the country with the highest GDP per capita  in the world – 129,700 $ (2016), and it is followed from the Gulf countries by Kuwait, that is yet on the 9th place only (71,300 $). Officially, breaking off relations with Qatar was due to the support Doha would have granted to Muslim Brotherhoods (it backed especially the Egyptian Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi), Hamas and Daesh. Saudi Arabia reproaches with Qatar as well of maintaining close relations with Iran (mention should be made that the great Qatari gas deposit “North Dome” extends to the Iranian territorial waters where it is called ”South Pars” . Another Saudi’s discontent is the presence in Doha of the TV station Al Jazeera,  set up in 1996 and which represents a new media approach, different from the one in the area, including the domestic and regional controversial problems which generally the Arab media approaches reluctantly or at all. The station shocked part of the Arab audience when in presenting the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it conveyed Israeli opinions as well.

Turkey is another Qatar’s faithful ally which in 2014 agreed upon  setting up  a military base where, after breaking off the relations by the abovementioned countries, sent  a symbolical contingent of 150 military that, according to Turkish media of the time, could reach in the end 1,000 military. Besides, Qatar is the Gulf country where the biggest American contingent is placed at Al Udeid base (11,000 military) where there is a Command Center for coordinating the air strikes against Daesh in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Turkey, which had excellent relations with Bashar Al Assad regime until the civil war was triggered (in May 2009 the president Abdullah Gul paid a visit to Damascus) pronounced itself firmly against Assad regime particularly after the first lot of 3,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey after the fights in Jisr as-Shugur. The Turkish Minister of Foreign  Affaires of the time, Ahmet Davutoglu declared “We suspended all trade relations and all understandings between Turkey and Syria were suspended”; in June 2012 a Turkish military aircraft was downed by a missile launched from Syria and the situation deteriorated even further later on in connection with the complications of the emergence of Daesh and the fighting in the Syria’s northern zones where the Syrian Kurdish forces still play an important role.

The policy of ”zero problems with the neighbours” could not be materialized and Ankara, confronted with the coup attempt of the summer of 2016, turned towards Russia and the relations between Putin and Erdogan became closer and closer (Putin visited Ankara on September 28th 2017). Although Russia backs Bashar Al Assad and Turkey the opposition, the relation Moscow-Ankara-Tehran strengthened in the framework of the Astana negotiations by setting up the de-escalation zones and Turkey is to play an important role especially in Idlib area. There are analyses foreseeing a Turkey’s extension in northern Syria up to somewhere south of Aleppo, yet that is too early to estimate. For the time being, the situation is further complicated by the referendum for the Iraqi Kurds independence (92.7% in favor), an action that does not enjoy regional or international support and which Turkey does not accept in any way.  

Daesh is as well defeated in its declared capital – Raqqa, and it is a matter of at most a few weeks until the end of the offensive, yet that does not mean the end of the organization which will find other forms of manifestation.

The fluid and destabilized situation of the Middle East is beneficial to Israel that sees the possible Arab enemies more and more weakened and divided.

The great powers try to position themselves as better as possible in the Middle East for the next geopolitical global negotiations in which the Middle East region has no more the same importance as in the XXth century. A world peace cannot anymore be predicted from the Middle East only, and the latest developments in Asia and Europe at least fully prove that.

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About the author:

Corneliu Pivariu, former first deputy for military intelligence (two stars general) in the Romanian MoD, retired 2003. Member of IISS – London, alumni of Harvard – Kennedy School Executive Education and others international organizations. Founder of INGEPO Consulting, and bimonthly Bulletin, Geostrategic Pulse”. Main areas of expertise – geopolitics, intelligence and security.

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Photographer: Ionus Paraschiv.

 

 

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