The New Balance of Power in the Middle East – Analysis (2)

Iran, Iraq, Lebanon & “Kurdistan”

As Bernard-Henri Levy said (who i don’t like personally for a very obvious reason)“The Kurdish nation is persecuted for ages and condemned to death by ISIS jihadis, but this people have survived and their executioners are dead. This is one of the strongest elements of legitimacy of a nation”

“An independent Kurdistan it will be a little state in size but big in value,” Levy concluded. “There are many examples in the world. Many small states in size but big in value, fight and commitment,”“And the Kurds fighting against ISIS is a sign that the moment will come and very soon I hope.”

Nonetheless, one of the fundamental questions regarding the creation of an independent state called Kurdistan is under what conditions stability will prevail in the Middle East after the creation of such a state. An independent Kurdistan, strengthened by resolute US support, probably will disrupt any territorial ambitions from Iran as Kurds . In the Kurdish population both sects Shia Sunni are represented, but the majority is the Sunni group. If we consider alevism part of shiism, it is usually said around 75% of Kurds are Sunni, 20% Shia and 5% for other religions.

  • Iran, Iraq, Turkey Vs”Kurdistan”

Iran has been heavily involved in Iraq since the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.  In recent years, after the US withdrawal of combat forces, its surrogate troops have been the backbone of resistance to ISIS and Kurdish separatists.  It’s been widely assumed that Iran would seek to dominate Iraq once the conflict was over:  but, now that it’s visibly drawing to a close, another dimension is entering the picture.

From 2005 on it became increasingly clear that the vast majority of Iraqis, including Kurds and most Shia Arabs, feared increasing Iranian influence. Although most Iraqis are Shia, they are also Arab, and do not want to be ruled by their fellow Shia in Iran. For some experts, one reason Saddam Hussein had some support from all groups in Iraq and from his Arab neighbors was his ability to keep the Iranians out.

Kurdish separatism its today a pretext for better cooperation against a common “threat” for Ankara and Tehran.Turkey and Iran have discussed possible joint military action against Kurdish militant groups, after talks in Ankara last week between the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces and Turkish leaders, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday this week. (Reuters). Once a strong opponent of an independent Kurdistan, Turkey has now developed close political and economic ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).M

The issue of an independent Kurdistan is sensitive for the Islamic Republic of Iran because of fears that it would embolden its own large population of repressed Kurds. eanwhile, Rudaw reports that curently there are some 1,500 Kurds from Iran who have sought asylum in the border province of Van, eastern Turkey who are afraid to return back by fear to face torture; imprisonment or even worse. Both countries probably would like to see an independent Kurdistan slowly take place in order to mitigate reactions from the kurdish populations in their soil.

The controversy surrounding the September 25 referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is gaining momentum according to the russian Sputnik. Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar El-Abadi warned that the potential creation of an independent Kurdish state could lead to tragic consequences as Baghdad claims that the referendum would violate the country’s constitution, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pointed to the threat of a civil war.Turkey, also having a large Kurdish minority, has likewise expressed opposition to Kurdish independence.

For Iraq, the dismantling of IS is tantamount to a political victory for the authorities in Baghdad. More generally, it means the victory by the Shia camp which – aside from the government forces – includes the increasingly stronger Shia militias, which are only formally dependent on the government. Both the authorities in Baghdad and the Shia militias are largely dependent on, controlled by and strategically managed by Iran, and their success is mainly a success for Iran, achieved on a regional scale. One important consequence of the Shia forces recapturing northern Iraq is the apparently long-term elimination of the Arab Sunni camp as an actor in Iraqi politics. If the drive for Kurdish independence were accompanied by the reemergence of pan-Kurdish nationalism, Baghdad might be able to coordinate with Ankara and Tehran against Kurdish independence according to Rand.org study.

Since 2003, the KRG has been developing with some success (the process was not stopped by the Iraqi authorities’ curbing the KRG’s state budget subsidies in 2014, a move which went against the Iraqi constitution); it has continued to build its partner status in its relations with Baghdad, and has used the government’s failures in its battle against IS as an opportunity to seize several disputed areas, Kirkuk in particular, and to take over several oil fields (in 2014 and 2017).

With the collapse of the Islamic State as a functioning entity, there are clearly new dynamics coming into play which will complicate the post-Islamic State period. What is actually taking place is a realignment of the regional balance of power between Shiite and Sunni regional power “entities”. Iran, backed by Russia, seeks to further expand its influence by solidifying a land bridge from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the eastern Mediterranean. There is also the fear that after the collapse of ISIS, its former members could join existing or create new radical Sunni organizations exploiting the Israeli-Arab tensions in order to gain funds and support.

For the US, Iran’s domination of regimes in Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, along with its play for Yemen, puts it in position to surround the Arabian Peninsula and threaten strategic waterways for the US interests, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab.  For Iran gaining control of Kurdish soil in Syria and Iraq is essential to Tehran, in particular (according to US analysts), as it provides a seamless link from Iran through Iraq, into Syria along the southern border of Turkey, to the city of Afrin, west of Aleppo, and nearly to the Russian naval base at Tartus on the Syrian shoreline.

  • The Iranian corridor to the Mediterranean Sea and Israel

According to Western media, thousands of Iranian-backed fighters are battling their way through the Middle East in a bid to secure a corridor from the Tehran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.

For Washington Post, the route of an Iranian corridor to the Mediterranean  sea is largely being carved out by Iran’s allies and proxies, a mix of forces including troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias on both sides of the border aiming to link up. Iran also has forces of its own Revolutionary Guard directly involved in the campaign on the Syrian side.

Iran’s allies are making progress on both sides of the Syrian/Iraqi border, taking territory from the Islamic State group. In recent months, Syrian troops and allied militiamen have marched forward on three fronts toward areas bordering Iraq. One of their main targets is the IS-held eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where the militants have imposed a siege for years on a small government-held pocket.

Hezbollah’s battle against ISIS and like-minded jihadis this month has not attracted as much attention as the ongoing campaigns in Raqqa and Mosul, but it signals an important shift in the Middle East order. Hezbollah, arguably, played a more pivotal role than any other Syrian ally in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power when his rule was threatened by the uprising that began in 2011.

At the end of July in less than a week, Hezbollah quickly dislodged a jihadi stronghold on the border of Lebanon and Syria in the Lebanese town of Arsal. For some analysts, the coalition in Arsal is a remarkable bellwether for several reasons. It showcases Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran) in a leadership role in an anti-terror coalition.

At the same time, Netanyahu stresses Israel will not allow Iran and its proxies to take over areas vacated by ISIS. Likewise for the former US Secretary of State and world’s butcher Henry Kissinger cautioned in an article published by CapX the downfall of ISIS could be a boon for Iran.

If the Isis territory is occupied by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or Shia forces trained and directed by it, the result could be a territorial belt reaching from Tehran to Beirut, which could mark the emergence of an Iranian radical empire.”And when King Salman – or rather Saudi Arabia’s whizz-kid Crown Prince Mohammad – points the finger at Iran as the greatest threat to Gulf security, you can be sure that Bibi Netanyahu will be doing exactly and precisely the same thing, replacing “Gulf security”, of course, with “Israeli security”.

The hardline anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli stance of the new administration of White House is another fact in an expected crisis. On the one hand, the Trump administration supports Israel in the growing confrontation and aims to limit the Russian-Iranian cooperation and the Iranian influence in the region. On the other hand, White House has wide plans of anti-ISIS military operations in Syria’s Raqqah and Deir Ezzor, and Iraq’s Mosul. Iran plays a key role in both countries and the US-led coalition de-facto cooperates with pro-Iranian forces in Iraq. The Iranian-Syrian-Russian alliance also plays a key role in the standoff in northern Syria where Turkey aims to crack down US-backed Kurdish forces. In both cases, White House is pushed to cooperate with Tehran directly or indirectly according to South Front.

It has never been a particularly well-kept secret that Israel has conducted clandestine airstrikes in Syrian territory over recent years. But in July, Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to not only admit that these strikes had occurred (Times of Israel), but that they had occurred “dozens” of times. Israel now seems more concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah and other Iran-backed forces helping Assad in Syria, who could end up occupying territory near Israel’s border as conflict slows down.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told Newsweek  that the best outcome that Israel could hope for in Syria would be a peace settlement creating any number of federated or independent states divided on ethnic or religious lines.

  • Sources and further reading:

Featured Image: @pewresearch on Twitter

1.Wikipedia: Balance of power (international relations) [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

2.https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2017-08-08/iraqi-kurdistan-beginning-a-new-crisis-middle-east [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

3.http://tass.com/politics/913322.%5BConsulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

4.A new balance of power in the Middle East, DECEMBER 28, 2016 by: David Gardner, Financial Times.[Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

5.U.S.-Russia Competition in the Middle East Is Back by ILAN GOLDENBERGJULIE SMITHMARCH 7, 2017 , Foreign Policy. [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

6.The changing balance of power in global energy security AUGUST 7, 2017 by: Nick Butler, FT. [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

7.https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201708201056628888-iran-turkey-kurdistan-independence/. %5BConsulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

8.https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-13/turkey-is-said-to-agree-to-pay-2-5b-for-4-russian-s-400-sams . [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

9.Strengthened by War, Hezbollah Displays Regional Power, tcf.org, July 28, 2017.[Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

10.Sputnik: President Erdogan’s Move to ‘Jump Into the Bandwagon’ and Fight in Syria,21.01.2017 [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

11.Making sense of Turkey selecting Russia’s S-400 air-defence system: Middle East Online 2017-08-08. [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

12.The Evolution and New Trends of the Regional Order in the Middle East, By Zhang Weiting http://www.cpifa.org/en/cms/item/view?table=book&id=215, No 124. [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

13.South Front: BALANCE OF POWER IN MIDDLE EAST IN ‘POST-ISIS ERA’:08.03.2017. [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

14.Rand.org: Regional Implications of an Independent Kurdistan, 2016. [Consulted the 23rd of August, 2017]

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