By Maria Dubovikova*
The Middle East is undergoing a full-scale reshuffle of its geopolitical power system. Last week, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi was in France, King Salman of Saudi Arabia was in Russia and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Iran. This a new strategic rethink by all Middle Eastern countries and a change in the balance of power.
The French seek a presence in northern Iraq, which explains why the Iraqi prime minister held talks with French officials about the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Israelis were supportive of the Kurdish independence referendum, but they have their own power game. King Salman held talks with the Russian leadership on a number of regional issues, including the Syrian conflict, Iraq, Yemen and terrorism. In other words, each regional power started to think of ways to change the game.
The most significant changes in the region have been triggered by the developments in Moscow’s foreign policy over the past few years, when Russia has significantly altered its role in the Middle East, improving its position both militarily and politically. This caused chaos among traditional players in the region, who had to start rethinking their positions. The frequent visits of Iraqi officials to France, Turkey and Iran, the visits of Iranians to Iraq, Turkey and Moscow, the visits of Turkish officials to Iraq, Iran and Russia, were all signs of these fluctuating dynamics. Would it end with Ankara withdrawing from NATO? Would Turkey be forced out of the US and European spheres of influence? How will Iran and Turkey act in the region as major powers supported by Russia?
Arms deals involving the region illustrate this uncertainty, as no country knows what is coming next. Iran has bought the S-300 missile defense system from Russia; Saudi Arabia and Turkey are buying the more sophisticated S-400. The UAE has the American THAAD system. Turkey will have both the S-400 and THAAD. All countries have started to depend on themselves to defend their borders and airspace.
The involvement of Turkish forces fighting militants in Idlib province, with the protection of Russian air cover, will strengthen the military alliance in Syria between Iran, Turkey and Russia. When the Syrian conflict ends, there will be talks on who will be involved in the reconstruction process, and the issue of the presence of Iranian forces at some strategic positions near Israel will then be discussed. However, Russia and the US will both try to leverage their influence in the region for some time. They will create two paths, and wait to see which one the countries of the Middle East choose.
Division and fragmentation will be the natural outcome, according to all current indicators. The region is likely to experience regular wars rather than strikes here and there. The focus of tension at the moment is US President Donald Trump’s decision, expected this week, on whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
In any case, the Americans will not be able to proceed much further with the nuclear agreement, under pressure from some regional powers.
The military race in the Middle East can either be positive or negative. The more balanced the powers are, the more stability there will be. The term “New Middle East” has been used many times by politicians and political analysts over the years, and we are beginning to hear it again.
However, there is a note of caution in the work of Ralph Peters, a retired US military intelligence officer, who drew up a blueprint for the re-division of the Middle East in 2006. Peters was not the first to trace many of the region’s troubles to what he calls “groups or peoples who were deceived when the first partition was made,” with the Sykes-Picot agreement in the early 20th century. But he did predict the Kurdish independence referendum – followed by the division of Iraq and a new regional war.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme
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