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Middle East Acocalypse Now with Regional Power Tussle-2018

Paper No. 6430              Dated 26-Sept-2018

By Dr Subhash Kapila

In the closing months of 2018, the Middle East security environment presents the spectacle of an intense power struggle going on among the major regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel besides the geopolitical and military involvement of the traditional external powers like the United States and China that compulsively get drawn into Middle East regional conflicts on opposing sides.

Taking the broader overview, one must necessarily first focus on the role and involvement of the United States and Russia in the security and peace threatened Middle East environment in 2018. Two major factors emerge in relation to the presence of the United States and Russia in the Middle East as on today. China waits in the wings to exploit vacuums created by either United States or Russia.

Glaringly visible is that in 2018, the United States seems to be fading away from the Middle East strategically in stark contrast to Russia. In recent years, Russia has enlarged its role and presence in the Middle East simply by stepping into the vacuum generated by United States strategic priorities elsewhere. Russia commenced its Middle East by sizeable military involvement in Syria in favour of President Assad’s beleaguered regime under severe military challenge for nearly a decade of civil war by Forces supported by the United States, Israel and Turkey.

The civil war tide in 2018 has turned in favour of the Damascus Government of President Assad with Russian and Iranian military backing and involvement. In retrospect, one wonders whether it was worthwhile for the United States and Israel to support a civil war in Syria without achieving the end-aim of a regime change in Damascus.

Significantly, it needs to be remembered that it was Saudi Arabia which was the original patron of the Free Syria military groups, whether in conjunction with the United States or independent of USA and presenting a ‘fait accompli’ to the United States. Saudi Araba’s strategic aim was to limit Iran’s influence in the Shia Northern Crescent of the Middle East

The United States after two Gulf War military interventions in the 1990s and in the turn of the Millennium was left with limited strategic interest in the Middle East limited to the preservation and security of Israel and curtailing what USA perceived as Iran acquiring a predominant pre-eminence in the geopolitics and geostrategics of the Middle East.

In terms of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies, with US oil dependence on Gulf oil getting drastically reduced, the United States seeming geopolitical interest in The Gulf seems to get confined to limit Iran’s influence. It is open to speculation whether the United States other than military capacity-building of the Gulf Monarchies would resort to military interventions of the Gulf Wars scale. Only exception would be if Iran attempts to close the Hormuz Straits for international maritime traffic carrying energy imports from the Gulf.

President Trump in his UN General Assembly speech yesterday made it clear that the above mentioned nations would have to pay for the US burden of providing Middle East overall security.

The United States inflicted a military defeat on the ISIS in Iraq and prevented Iraq’s takeover by ISIS. The United States is militarily involved on limited scales more on advisory roles in Yemen in favour of Saudi Arabia battling Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

Turkey which is another regional Middle East power has its areas of influence and interest centred on Syria, Iraq and Iran. But since it is geographically distant in the North West away from the strategic centre of gravity in the Middle East, it has limitations. Also under the present regime Turkey’s relations with its neighbours have swung like a pendulum. Currently, it is enjoying proximity to Russia more out of pique with its senior NATO patron—the United States.

Israel as the only non-Muslim major power in the Middle East picks and chooses its Middle East partners dependent on the geopolitical balance of power at any given moment of time. However, it has the overarching umbrella of the United States. Currently, Israel is in an all-out adversarial mode with Iran and developing strategic cosiness with Saudi Arabia.

In terms of regional power play among Middle East powers it can be stated that the intense struggle is on between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both are oil rich countries and large geographical size but Iran outweighs Saudi Arabia asymmetrically in terms of natural attributes of power. Unfortunately for Iran, it is here that the United States and Israel step-in to add considerable strategic weight to Saudi Arabia’s power.

Russia for reasons ambiguous seems to be holding back its full support for Iran. But then nothing stops China to step-in not forgetting that China was the first Power to introduce IRBMs into the Middle East by supplying CSS-2 missiles to Saudi Arabia way back in the late 1980s

With so much power tussle and power-play in motion in the Middle East amongst the competing regional Middle East considerable explosive flash-points exist in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia and Iran indulge in proxy wars using sectarian and other divisive issues which plague the region to enlarge their areas of influence.

The Middle East’s explosiveness gets further intensified when to it is added the strategic and military readiness of the United States and Russia rush to aid their respective client States in the Middle East in multiple ways.

This is visible in United States involvement in the ongoing civil war in Yemen where Saudi Arabia has launched a major military offensive in what it perceives as Iranian bid to establish foothold on the Arabian Peninsula aiding the Houthi rebels. It is visible in Russia’s military involvement in Syria and assuring that no regime change takes place.

ISIS may have been extinguished from their sizeable holds of territory in Iraq and Syria but they have not been liquidated completely. It is again rearing its head and that includes Afghanistan. Prospects exist of external military involvement to prevent them from a resurgence again.

The Kurds are a sizeable population located in over-lapping areas of Iran, Iraq and Turkey more notably. The Kurds have been struggling  ever since the culmination of the First World War in the-20th Century. The Kurds want an independent nation and their self-determination struggles exist in each of the above countries. Geopolitical compulsions and earlier Superpower rivalries prevented in acceding to their demands. With population overlaps in three strategic Middle East nations this is likely to emerge as multiple flash-points. The Kurds have tasted military success in that in recent ISIS liquidation operations, the United States operations were spearheaded by the Kurds.

Then one cannot escape the nuclear flashpoints that could emerge as nuclear weaponisation is resorted to by the competing Middle East regional powers. For all practical purposes, Israel and Iran are nuclear weapons states. Turkey and Saudi Arabia do not want to be left behind and Pakistan gets involved here in aiding Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weaponisation.

The nuclear weaponisation of the Middle East added to the regional power tussle for predominance couple with multiple flashpoints makes the Middle East heading towards an acocalypse.

The United States and Russia though competing powers in the Middle East need to come together to make the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. But then neither Israel nor the United States would like to ask Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.

Not speculated by analysts is the likelihood of regime changes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies as they tend to move towards Russia or China. Regime change in Iran may be attempted by external sources inimical to Iran. In either contingency conflict cannot be ruled out.

In Conclusion, it needs to be pointed out that ever since Middle East nations were carved out of the Turkish Ottoman Empire after First World War, the region has incessantly been plagued by military conflicts and military turbulence. This region has also spawned major Islamic Jihadi terrorism movements spreading terror and violence globally. That propensity continues in 2018 and there are no sane voices emerging for peace and stability in the Middle East. The major question staring in the face is as to who will take the lead in turning around the Middle East region from the abyss?