Middle East: United States Strategic Chessboard in Disorder

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

United States unipolar moment in the Middle East seems to have passed away and is being replaced by a power tussle between regional actors, erstwhile staunch military allies of the United States. Each one of these erstwhile US allies are embarked on striking independent trajectories or engaged in hedging strategies. Concurrently, they also seem to be pushing the United States into possible military interventions in the region.

The United States strategic chessboard in the Middle East appears to be in disorder in 2013. More importantly, United States strategic formulations in the Middle East seem to be driven by Israel on Iran and by Saudi Arabia and Gulf Monarchies on Syria. On Iran, Saudi Arabia and Gulf States seem to be on the same page as Israel.

Perceptionally, the United States seems to be no longer shaping strategic dynamics in the Middle East. Further, in the American security architecture in the Middle East, the traditional mainstays of US strategic formulations, namely, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to have lost lustre and are no longer effective allies of the United States.

The latest flashpoint to be added to a volatile explosive mix already existing is Syria in which local actors seem to be contriving situations and pushing the United States into a possible military intervention in Syria for a regime change. Nothing could be more ill-advised for US strategic decision-makers than to be goaded into a military misadventure by regional power-play.

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This Paper intends to examine the main theme under the following heads:

  • Egypt, Turkey. Israel and Saudi Arabia No Longer Furthering United States Strategic Interests in the Middle East
  • Syria: The United States on Path to Repeat Strategic Blunders of Iraq Military Intervention.
  • Iran: Congagement Not Conflict is Advisable Strategy for United States & Regional Contenders
  • United States: Inadvisable to Get Entangled in Islamic Sectarian Divisions in the Middle East
  • United States: The Way Ahead

Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia No Longer Furthering United States Strategic Interests in the Middle East

Egypt which after Israel was the second-most beneficiary of US military and economic aid and a staunch ally of the United States can no longer be said to be so. The Arab Spring has brought about a regime change and the advent of trajectories independent of the United States. The new Egyptian President to drive home this point will be visiting Iran and China before he visits the United Sates. In terms of internal political dynamics, the Muslim Brotherhood not much favored by US partners in the Middle East seems to be establishing sway.

Turkey though continuing as United States NATO Alliance partner has for a couple of years now been striking independent trajectories in carving a regional power niche for itself. However this drive is confronting complex challenges for it in Middle East power-play. As a moderate Islamic democratic and Western-oriented secular nation it now seems to be strategically in company of conservative Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia.

Israel secure in the belief that the United States has no choice but to stand by its side for its security and stability has been driving a one-pint agenda of military strikes against Iran on the nuclear issue. This limits United States newer initiatives for strategic transformation of the Middle East power play more realistically in terms of strategic realities obtaining.

Saudi Arabia cannot capitalize its geostrategic and geopolitical leverages on its own because of its significant limitations in terms of manpower base and Wahhabi Islam. Strategic greatness on it is a bestowal by the United States. In terms of its leadership of the Islamic Ummah, one needs to remember the yawning Sunni-Shia divide in the overall Islamic Middle East. Saudi Arabia can no longer be counted as a US strategic asset because of its hedging strategies in moving closer to Russia and China.

In brief, the United States traditional military allies in the Middle East on whom the United States had invested exorbitant political and military capital have all ceased to be loyal foot- soldiers of US strategy in the Middle East.

Syria: The United States on Path to Repeat Strategic Blunders of Iraq Military Intervention

Syria is primarily being targeted by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States primarily to downsize Iran because Syria is strategically close to Iran. Also because in the perceptions of the countries named, Syria along with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon could be establishing a ‘Shia crescent’ in the northern tier of the Middle East which could upset the balance of power being contrived by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey more notably are all seemed to be engaged in pushing the United States towards a regime change in Syria for power-play reasons of their own. The United States so prodded has restrained itself from direct military intervention against Damascus but has not restrained itself from letting Saudi Arabia and Turkey funnel in sizeable quantities of advanced weaponry to the Free Syria rebel militia operating from Southern Turkey.
Reminiscent of the run-up to United States military intervention in Iraq, the so-called US allies in the Middle East are calling for the imposition of ‘safety zones’ and ‘no-fly zones in Syria.

In other words a civil-war seems to have been contrived forgetting the dangerous consequences of such an ill-advised step. Within the United States sane voices are sounding caution against such moves as would be evident from the excerpts from a recent piece in Foreign Policy Journal by Kenneth Pollack: “Civil wars like Syria are obvious tragedies for the countries they consume but can also be catastrophic for their neighbors. Long-lasting and bloody civil wars often overflow their borders, spreading war and misery”.

Are Syria’s neighbors in the forefront to nudge the United States towards a military intervention in a contrived civil war in Syria listening?

Further, in relation to the United States, the same piece opines that: “For the United States, these developments are particularly important because spill-over from the civil war could threaten America’s vital interests far more than a war contained within Syrian borders.”

The United Sates would be ill advised to proceed with any direct military intervention in Syria or even indirectly by using its Middle East proxies.

United States misplaced strategic aim of regime change in Iraq strategically distracted the United States from Asia Pacific for a decade facilitating China to come dangerously close to perceptionally downsize United States strategic stature in Asia Pacific. United States own losses in terms of loss of valuable military lives and bringing yawning deficits in the budget are well-known.

While Saudi Arabia and Turkey may presently be engaged as US proxies against Syria, the ensuing dangers to the United States are multiple. It is easy to start a fire but difficult to put out the ensuing brush-fire. The United States would be unwillingly drawn into a military intervention in Syria to salvage and bail out its proxies when the going gets tough for them

Secondly, what is the guarantee for the United States that once President Assad’s regime is toppled that peace and stability would automatically follow?

Also, would the United States be prepared to handle the spill-over military effects from civil wars breaking out in Lebanon or an insurrection in Turkey by the Kurds? Can Saudi Arabia insulate itself against Arab Spring movements breaking out in its kingdom and in Bahrain where it snuffed out a regime change demand by the majority Shias in Bahrain?

Iran: Congagement Not Conflict is Advisable Strategy for the United States & Regional Contenders

United States and Iran have been in a conflictual mode for more than three decades now. The conflict between the two countries is marked by a singular distinctive feature and that is that the United States has despite its global military predominance and a multi-dimensional military superiority in the Middle East has not been able to be subdue Iran.

Congagement is a strategic and political construct coined by United States policy establishment in relation to the strategy of dealing with a menacing China. It envisaged a mixture of containment and engagement strategy to handle China.

There is no reason as to why the United States cannot employ the same congagement strategic approach towards Iran, to its consequent strategic benefits for the United States.

The major problem inhibiting the United States in adopting congagement strategy towards Iran lies in the unremitting hostility towards Iran of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Lately, Turkey can also be said to be added to this list.

Even if Iran submitted to US demands on rolling back its nuclear program, then too Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey would still continue to be hostile to Iran. New excuses and reasons would be invented by them to goad the United States into an avoidable armed conflict with Iran.

Iran is the most dominant regional power in the Gulf Region and in coalition with Styria and its closely allied Lebanese armed militias extends its strategic influence from The Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean. Strategically, both Saudi Arabia and Turkey perceive Iran and its allies as military threats.

The United States needs to arrive at a bi-partisan political and strategic decision whether US long range strategic interests in the Middle East will be served by an unremitting hostility and conflict with Iran as the most dominant regional power or whether it would be more strategically advantageous for United States to accord strategic space to Iran within the overall strategic calculus of the Middle East, however distasteful it may be for US erstwhile military allies.

United States: Inadvisable to Get Involved in Islamic Sectarian Divisions in the Middle East

Deeply embedded within the regional power rivalries operating in the Middle East besides geopolitical and geostrategic factors is the Sunni-Shia Muslims divide within the Islamic World. There is also the Arab Muslims and the Non-Arab Muslims divide.

Deeply disturbing in the present civil war in Syria fanned by external actors, are media reports indicating that Saudi Arabia has in some way or the other allowed the Al Qaeda to get involved against the Syrian established regime. Do religious sectarian rivalries or regional power struggles justify use of groups like the Al Qaeda as cats- paw to achieve Saudi Arabia strategic and political objectives?

Jim Hoagland observations this month in The Washington Pot deserve attention:

“The Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are putting all their chips in an effort to bring down Bashar-al Assad’s regime in Damascus and inflict a strategic defeat on Assad’s Shiite allies in Teheran.”

“An Iranian decision to escalate to save Assad, perhaps by retaliating against the Gulf Arabs, would push the borders back on the Obama Administration-in the middle of a heated presidential campaign—-to define and protect US regional interests more clearly and decisively.”

The greater call is on the United States having been a victim of the heinous terrorists attacks by Al Qaeda suicide bombers in the 9/11 attacks in Homeland USA to restrain Saudi Arabia from using terrorism tools in the on-going civil war in Syria.

The United States needs to learn from its Afghanistan experience, twice over in the 1980s and in 2000s and also in Iraq not to get involved in the sectarian divides within the Islamic World. The Sunni Muslim-Shia Muslim conflict within the Islamic World has gone on for centuries and the United States is hardly in a position to change that reality.

More importantly, the United States strategic fulcrum in the Middle East has shifted to The Gulf Region. In The Gulf Region the United States must realize that sitting at the head of the Gulf is Iraq and sitting astride the entire Eastern littoral of the Gulf is Iran. Both are Shia Muslim majority nations sitting on huge reserves of oil. On the Western littoral of the Gulf are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies—–with Sunni monarchs ruling ruthlessly over the restive Shia Muslim majorities in their kingdoms.

In such an explosive mix, strategic logic would dictate that the United States in its policy formulations adopts a more detached posture on the sectarian divisions within the Islamic World

United States: The Way Ahead

United States-Iran rapprochement for an effective embedment in the Middle East as an inescapable strategic imperative for the United States was being advocated in my Papers in the middle of the last decade. It was argued that if the United States could normalize relations with China which had fought a major war with USA, why America could not normalize relations with Iran which till 1979 had been a much vaunted ally of the United States. This however has stood thwarted all along under intense pressures from vested interests amongst US allies in the Middle East.

Reading George Friedman’s recent book “The Next Decade” one felt gratified that similar suggestions from a reputed US strategic analyst now advocate the same approach. The excerpts of significance are as follows:

” “In the next decade, the most desirable option with Iran is going to be through a move that now seems inconceivable. It is the option chosen by Roosevelt and Nixon when they faced seemingly impossible strategic situations: the creation of alliances with countries that had been previously been regarded as strategic and moral threats.”

” “The alternative was a German victory in World War II. For Nixon, it was the Soviets using American weakness caused by the Vietnam War to change the global balance of power.”

” “Conditions on the ground put the United States in a similar position vis-à-vis Iran. These countries despise each other. Neither can easily destroy the other, truth be told, they have some interests in common. In simple terms, the American President, in order to achieve his strategic goals (In the Middle Eat) must seek accommodation with Iran,”

” “There will be several advantages to the United States. First, without fundamentally threatening Israeli interests, the move will demonstrate that the United States is not controlled by Israel. Second, it will put a generally unpopular country, Saudi Arabia—–a state that has accustomed to having its way in Washington—-on notice that the United States has other options. For their part, the Saudis have nowhere to go, and they will cling to whatever guarantees the United States provides them in the face of an American-Iranian entente.”

While on the subject of the way ahead for the United States, one cannot forget the roles of Russia and China. Russia and China are the strong supporters of Iran and Syria. What would be their reactions and options to a US-Iran rapprochement?

Then is the question of reactions of Turkey aspiring to emerge as the pre-eminent power in the Middle East? To what extent the United States would countenance an independent strategic stance in the Middle East, unmindful of US strategic sensitivities?

Once again, one would fall back on Friedman’s prognosis and this time it is intriguing: “As a solution to the complex problems of the Middle East, the American President must choose a temporary understanding with Iran that gives Iran what it wants, it gives the United States room to withdraw, and that is also a foundation for the relationship of mutual hostility to the Sunni fundamentalists. In other words, the President must put the Arabian Peninsula inside the Iranian sphere of influence while limiting direct controls, and while putting the Saudis, among others, at an enormous disadvantage.”

Concluding Observations

United States global predominance in terms of power stand finely balanced in terms of equilibrium at two ends of the strategic balance, namely the Middle East and the Asia Pacific.

While the United States has made a strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific, the United States strategic chessboard in the Middle East seems to be in disorder. This basically arises from change of policy stances of United States former staunch allies in the Middle East.

The logical argument that so surfaces is that when US erstwhile allies in the region have adopted hedging strategies, is there any pressing imperative for the United States not to redefine its strategic calculations in the Middle East?
The United States needs to go in for dramatic moves in the Middle East, the chief of which would be to arrive at a rapprochement with Iran, temporary or long-standing.

In terms of balance-of-power strategies preferred by the United States, future perspectives would suggest that the United States biggest challenge would be to maintain a balance-of-power between Iran and Turkey.
Nothing is inconceivable in international relations and power-play. Who knows that at some point in the future, the United States may be tempted to use Iran to check-mate a rising and powerful Turkey?

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.
He can be reached at drsubhashkapila.007@gmail.com)

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