us bases europe middle east map

The New Balance of Power in the Middle East – Analysis (1)

(Russia, United States, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar & Saudi Arabia)

In 2012, as part of a phenomena known as the ‘Arab Spring’, anti-government protests escalated into civil war in Syria. The combination of the Arab uprisings that ousted long-time pro-Western autocrats in Tunis, Cairo, and Yemen coupled with the ongoing civil wars raging in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen signal the dawn of a new era in the Middle East likely to be characterized by tremendous uncertainties – uncertainties that will make any balance-of-power calculations tenuous and transient at best.

The Arab Spring regions
Countries Involved in the Arab Spring protests, Source: Wikipedia

The modern order in the Middle East and the emergence of non-state actors in the region can be traced back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed by Britain and France 100 years ago to divide the Ottoman Empire. The agreement officially established a vertical ruling order by the West to divide and rule in the Middle East. This not only profoundly transformed the geopolitical landscape in the region, but also started the history of the separation and parallel evolution of regimes and societies in the region.

The balance of power theory in international relations suggests that national security is enhanced when military capability is distributed so that no one state is strong enough to dominate all others. If one state becomes much stronger than others, the theory predicts that it will take advantage of its strength and attack weaker neighbors, thereby providing an incentive for those threatened to unite in a defensive coalition. Some realists maintain that this would be more stable as aggression would appear unattractive and would be averted if there was equilibrium of power between the rival coalitions.

The result has been a shift in the balance of powers in the region with new powers emerging. Unfortunately, this uncertaintly predominates today in  Syria and Iraq  , where we find a battleground of the proxies of different states and non-states. To a lesser extent, focus is also on Yemen and Egypt, but with the same level of concern as ‘Arab Spring’ sentiments of democracy and a high influx of radicalism persist.

Geopolitics changes extremely slowly because geography itself does not change. What changes is the political dimension of this geography. Most of the catastrophic mistakes made by policymakers emanate from their lack of awareness of this difference between the stability of geography and the changing elements of politics.

The future of Syria, which is expressed as a breakpoint of power balance in the Middle East by Russia and Iran and the US, is a direct determinant of in what way regional balances will have shape.

  • Russia  to counterbalance the “US hegemony” in the Middle East

The past few years have been characterized by increasing American-Russian competition all over the globe. Historically, major powers have rarely balanced against the United States and not at all since the 1990s when it has become the sole superpower.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been expanding its economic and political power. More recently, it has begun to engage in increasingly unilateralist military policy… [Y]et despite these growing material capabilities, major powers such as China, France, Germany, India and Russia have not responded with significant increases in their defense spending. Nor have they formed military coalitions to counterveil US power, as traditional balance of power theory would predict.

Russia views the Middle East as its near abroad, and is in the early stages of executing a long-term strategy in an attempt to return itself to the powerful stature and influence it had in the region during the heart of the Cold War. It is working to undercut longstanding U.S. relationships in the Middle East and restructure the regional order more to its liking. Indeed, Russia’s strategy in the Middle East is no different than its approach to undercutting NATO and the EU in Europe. With the Syrian cease fire tenuously holding, and UN-brokered negotiations underway in Geneva, President Putin’s surprise partial withdrawal of forces makes it clear that the Russian establishment has not forgotten the lessons of the Afghanistan quagmire.

Vladimir Putin declared in November 2016 that Russia will seek to maintain the world’s strategic balance of power and will work to neutralize the threats stemming from creation of missile defense systems and the concept of global strike. What Putin seeks is  a desirable balance of power, which was formed back in the late 1940s and in the 1950s, enabled the world to avoid major armed conflicts, according to his own words. In other words, keeping Assad in power is not the sole extent of Russian ambition in the region. 

The obvious starting point was Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria in the fall of 2015 at the request of President Bashar al-Assad. The intervention is historic, representing the first time the Russians have put boots on the ground to support an ongoing conflict in the region since their support for Syria during the 1973 war with Israel. And by all accounts it has been a success, solidifying Assad’s position in Syria, protecting its single military base in the Middle East, and causing regional actors to rethink Russia’s role in the region all at a relatively low cost.

Russia is actively testing and seeking to upend the decades-long, strategic partnerships that the United States has built with some the most important state actors in the Middle East including Turkey and, to a lesser extent,  Egypt and Israel.

  • Turkey and Egypt

For FT Turkey , is more focused on the realpolitik than the triumphalism during the last years ( in the Middle East). Ankara has had to give up its support for Sunni rebels trying to topple the Assad regime, and move towards Russia and Iran to prevent Syrian Kurdish fighters allied with insurgent Turkish Kurds from consolidating a self-governing entity along its borders. Turkey tries to balance the current political shifts, in the Middle East of its politics,  in its favour but currently the country is in a very delicate position. According to Al-Arabiya, there’s actually tthe impression that Turkey is escaping its problems without actually solving them with a diplomacy that has lost its composure.

Turkey today is mired in a bloody war against the PKK domestically and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing in Syria, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG). Ankara is angered by US arming of the PYD, which Washington considers a partner in the war against Daesh in Syria. Besides, the YPG is a very effective force against Daesh.

rojava map syria
Map 1:Claimed territory of Rojava (in orange) not currently under control and the de facto territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (in green). Source/caption: Wikipedia

As Turkey and Russia’s bilateral relationships with the United States soured, in the summer of 2016, Erdogan and Putin met in St. Petersberg, and the two are now cooperating in Syria often without any consultation with the United States. They recently brokered a ceasefire between the Assad regime and opposition forces, one that gave the United States no role whatsoever and have begun coordinating some strikes on the Islamic State.

Turkey has agreed to pay $2.5 billion to acquire Russia’s most advanced missile defense system, the S-400, in a deal that signals a turn away from the NATO military alliance that has anchored Turkey to the West for more than six decades. According to Bloomberg, the Russian system would not be compatible with other NATO defense systems, but also wouldn’t be subject to the same constraints imposed by the alliance, which prevents Turkey from deploying such systems on the Armenian border, Aegean coast or Greek border, the official said. The Russian deal would allow Turkey to deploy the missile defense systems anywhere in the country, the official said. The partnership could boost Turkey’s defense industry and serves the nation’s goal of diversifying arms suppliers.

Nowadays, Turkey’s policy may be at risk. At the end of this era in the Middle East Turkey might not be between the winners as its policy and attempts to ‘bandwagon for profit’ in order to maximize its power and promote a revisionist strategic agenda could boomerang. This cannot work this time as it did at the end of WWII!

As the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011, a confident Turkey hoped to restore some of its former Ottoman-era glory, positioning itself as a leader among the Sunni Muslim nations. It threw its weight behind Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s rebels, just as it had backed Hamas in Gaza. Qatar proved an enthusiastic ally.

This strategy backfired when the Brotherhood was overthrown in Egypt and replaced by a military strongman who, backed by the region’s other status quo powers, chiefly Saudi Arabia, is restoring the pre-2011 status quo in Cairo.

For 25 years from the 1952 revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and his supporters to power until the Camp David Accords in 1979, Egypt had been the subject of intense U.S.-Soviet competition for influence.  In 2014 Egypt and Russia signed their first major arms agreement since the Cold War and have since been moving forward on additional follow-on deals.

After the chaos of governments overthrown in 2011 and 2013, Egypt has been recast into a hardened security state. Under Mr Sisi, policy is divorced from politics and short-circuited by the security services. Egypt’s economy is vulnerable after a falling out with Saudi Arabia, its main financial patron. Nato ally Turkey, meanwhile, is turning eastward, as Mr Erdogan tests its institutions to destruction in the purges that followed July’s failed coup and his moves towards one-man rule. In both countries the jails are full. Today Egypt is  somehow subjected to chain-ganging to Saudi Arabia the biggest US ally in the Arab world.

Egypt, which has faced major security, political, and economic challenges in recent years, has grown quite dependent on the oil-rich kingdom for financial aid. The Saudis, long reliant on external support for defense, have counted on Egypt as a strong and experienced military force to confront what they perceive to be Iran’s expansionist and “aggressive” operations throughout the region. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is also a very strong supporter of Donald Trump and his policy for the region.

  • The Triangle :Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia

The ongoing dispute between Qatar and the rest of Arab Gulf Cooperation Council represents perhaps the greatest internal threat to the group since it was created as a bulwark against Shi’a radicalism in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The split all but eliminates any prospect that the United States could forge a regional – let alone an international – coalition to contain and roll back what many consider Iran’s growing regional clout.

The Trump administration can be forgiven for its lofty ambition to recreate a regional coalition of Arab Sunni states to stand against Shi’a Persian Iran, a concept some have named “Arab NATO.”

Indeed, during his first foreign visit to an Arab-Islamic Summit in Saudi Arabia, President Trump outlined a wholesale return to US regional policies grounded in traditional balance-of-power politics. He urged the Sunni Arab countries to forge an alliance that would “work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” For the US, Saudi Arabia is an important counterterrorism partner but its spread of an intolerant version of Wahhabi Islam provides much of the theological fuel for today’s violent radical Islamic terrorist groups.

Unfortunately, for the Trump administration the heated Saudi-Qatari dispute is having the counterproductive effect of increasing opportunities for Iranian influence rather than curbing them. Indeed, Iran has willingly stepped into the storm created by the Saudi-led siege of Qatar by championing a diplomatic resolution, providing tons of food to Qatar, and allowing Doha access to its sea and air corridors for civilian and military traffic.

The security challenge is clear. First, there are the Gulf choke points of the straits of Malacca and Hormuz. Some 17m barrels a day pass through Hormuz and most of the tankers then turn east. Both are vulnerable to closure or disruption by conflict or terrorist action. The lesson of Libya is regime change can open up deep tensions leading to a civil war that cuts off the bulk of oil supply for years.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq greatly consumed US power and gave rise to rampant anti-American sentiments. In addition, with the rise of emerging countries and the shift of global geopolitical gravity, the regional order has, once again, moved to the stage of accelerated evolution. Under huge social pressure, the GCC states no longer completely followed the lead of the US. After closing the BBC Arabic channel which had just been brought in but was found to be in contradiction with traditional social values in 1995, Saudi Arabia canceled the US air base in the country for similar reasons in 2001. That said, the GCC is not monolithic. The BBC Arabic channel and the US air base were soon invited by Qatar. Al Jazeera and Al Udeid Air Base were then established. Qatar was the first to be diplomatically independent in the GCC and embarked on a path of diversified diplomacy. Apart from expanding its relations with other big powers, it made goodwill gestures to regional radicalists, providing funding assistance to Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood and other radical organizations (Source: Cpifa.org).

To Egypt, Saudi Arabia is not only a supporter of Sisi’s military coup, but also its largest funder and a bridge to U.S. aid. To Bahrain, the security or fall of its government entirely depends on the GCC headed by Saudi Arabia, and its pillar tourism industry is in need of the markets of neighboring countries. To Libya and Yemen, Saudi Arabia is the major supporter of their central governments, while Qatar and Iran side with their opposition forces. Israel is Saudi Arabia’s new ally as during the Iran nuclear talks, Saudi Arabia plotted with Israel for joint military actions against Iran, and together they lobbied the U.S. Congress for barriers to lifting sanctions on Iran.

Aljazeera reported earlier this month of a potential Iraq-led mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to de-escalate tensionscome, as the latter leads the third year of a costly, intractable war across its border in Yemen,one of the world’s poorest countries. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen proved to be a “strategic failure”, but a full and official withdrawal from that country is unlikely, Al-Jazeera reports.

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