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Middle East Turbulence Continues Unabated – Analysis

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By Dr Subhash Kapila

“So while the United States pursues a balance of power strategy: in the Middle East it pursues a strategy of balance of artificially weak powers. Arabia has to be both immune from domination by Iraq or Iran and also weak enough not to threaten Israel.”

“We are going to see the United States remove itself over the next 20 years from the balance of artificially weak powers strategy as gracefully it can given Israel’s position in its domestic political situation, on terms favourable as it can manage for Israel and the Jewish people of Israel.” — Arnold Evans.

Asia Pacific having emerged as the prime focus of United States strategic attention has pushed the Middle East into a secondary focus. However, Israel and the security of Israel will continue to remain foremost in the American strategic calculus even as United States turns its focus to the Asia Pacific. Yet the final outcome US Grand Strategy will always revolve around the strategic determination of the secure existence of Israel, even beyond 20 years.

The Middle East region with its flash-points still flashing ever so brightly continues to remain turbulent as ever. The important point to remember is that that the issues that over-hang these flash-points are deeply ingrained, intractable and defy rational solutions.

Contextually, the United States can be expected to ignore these flash-points and let them simmer till anyone of the flash-points threatens to erupt explosively endangering Israeli security. The United States can then be expected to clamp down in a hard manner.

Crowning the Middle East turbulent flash-points are the US-Iran confrontation on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian domestic armed confrontation or as some like to call it as the Syrian Civil War, the Israel-Palestine conflict and topping all of these is the intense power struggle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.

The US-Iran confrontation had peaked on Israel’s insistence some time back and military strikes by US and Iran seemed imminent. Fortunately, tempers seem to have cooled down on both sides for the time being and it seems that in the run-up to the US presidential elections, discretion as the better part of valour may prevail. Saner voices seem to have emerged in the US domestic debates arguing against any projected US military strikes against Iran.

Whether the above is a temporary pause conditioned by US presidential year politics militating against US military interventions after the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions fatigue or it gets extended to a longer duration giving time for saner responses remains to be seen.

The Syria crisis or as the West would like to term it as Civil War is really more than a Civil War as ingrained in it are regional and global power play and rivalries. At the global level the power-play is between the United States and the West opposed by Russia and China. At the regional level the power-play involves respective interests of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to name the more prominent ones.

At the core of the Syrian crisis are the deep strategic convergences between Syria and Iran. The aim of the US and the West is to prise away Syria from its Iran linkages by an engineered civil war which has yet not succeeded. Towards this aim Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel enjoy a strategic convergence with the United States.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a festering sore in the Middle East and promises to continue as such for a long time. The Middle East Peace Process has lingered for decades now as Arab nations refuse to grant recognition of Israel’s right of existence as a nation-state in the Middle East. Israel has fought and defeated the combined might of the Arab armies at least three times in the last six decades. Its nuclear deterrence is a strong shield now against any further Arab military adventurism.

The Middle East no longer is the Middle East of the 1950s to 1970s. Today the Middle East strategic landscape has thrown up at least three major contenders for regional supremacy with strong military instruments at their disposal to give effect to their regional power aspirations. These three regional powers are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Turkey by far is the most powerful with a strong military machine but geographically it lies on the north-western periphery of the Middle East. Its NAATO membership and its geostrategic leverages however impart to it a significant role in the Middle East strategic calculus.

Saudi Arabia and Iran lie squarely on both sides of the Persian Gulf, not only geographically opposite but also strategically opposite and confronting each other. In terms of power-potential, Iran enjoys a lead over Saudi Arabia. Religiously also both these Gulf Region rivals are diametrically opposite in that Saudi Arabia is Sunni Muslim whereas Iran is the largest and most powerful Shia Muslim nation in the world.

One can foresee that the Saudi Arabian-Iran regional powers tussle is likely to be long drawn out unless Arab Spring movements overtake Saudi Arabia or a US-Iran rapprochement takes place in which US leverages would once again come into play to give effect to the recreation by the United States of Saudi Arabia and Iran as the “Twin Pillars” of US security architecture in the Middle East which was the corner-stone of US strategic formulations till the late 1970s.

Many other imponderables which may erupt as additional flash-points to Middle East turbulence could emerge in the form of Arab Spring movements in Saudi Arabia and oil-rich Gulf monarchical states with sizeable Shia majorities, a colour-revolution in Iran, Iran’s open testing of nuclear weapons followed by Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey.

In terms of global power-play in the Middle East between the United States and a resurgent Russia now is added China’s power-play in the Middle East, if not independently for the time being but at least in strategic collusion with Russia, This is already evident in Syria and Iran.

China independently can be expected to use the Middle East as a strategic counter-pressure point to lessen the pressures building against it in the Asia Pacific as a result of the implementation of the Obama Doctrine of strategic pivot to Asia Pacific and the rebalancing of American military posture in that region basically ringing and containing China.

The United States seems to be alive to these possibilities and this stands evident from the fact that even as part of the rebalancing of military postures in the Asia Pacific the Middle East has not been denuded of a strong US military presence in the form of US Army Air Force and US Navy deployments. The reductions for redeployments in the Asia Pacific have been drawn from the European Theatre.

Contextually therefore, what emerges from the above brief survey is that Middle East turbulence continues unabated. There are no positive signs of abatement on the horizon. On the contrary, there are more negative indicators which portend that this turbulence could erupt and magnify.

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SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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