The Middle East Conundrum
The Middle East has been at the center stage of world politics due to its strategic location and abounding natural resources. First, great powers like Great Britain, France and Russia had involvement in this region. Post-World War II era paved the way for a bipolar world order. At that time, Muslim population was the number one factor for consideration against the Soviet atheist ideology.
Second, huge reserves of hydrocarbons complemented the power equation for world domination.
Post-Cold War era saw the rise of the United States as the sole superpower of the world. This status and American exceptionalism made a perfect combo for doing whatever the US successive administrations wanted. Military-Industrial complex wanted new enemies for its client, i.e. NATO. “End of History” was cited as the ultimate triumph of liberal world order. Same liberal project was prescribed for the whole world and the US was to act as enforcer-in-chief for that.
Despite the emergence of theocratic Iran in the wake of the Revolution, the region was successfully managed through diplomacy or otherwise, e.g. military intervention as in the case of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Regional order was mostly suitable for US interests in the region. Invasion of Iraq proved to be most consequential as the whole order was turned upside down. Before the US could realize, the monster was unleashed.
The region got mired in civil wars, sectarianism, conflicts, terrorism, extremism and, last but not least, intervention by foreign powers, i.e. Russia. Here is a brief sketch of balance of power in the region that has shifted from United States’ hands.
Liberal project of building nation-states has failed miserably as Iraq is now, indubitably, a failed state in search of stability at best. Muqtada al-Sadr is emerging as a strong kingmaker as he wields a commanding authority over the country’s Shiite population. Ostensibly, he wants freedom from Iran, but Sunni Arabs and leadership will never support a Shiite leader.
In Syria, Assad regime remains stronger than ever today as it is directly supported by Iran. Shiite minority rules Syrian Sunni majority. Assad regime survived machinations of Turkey, Qatar and the Gulf countries mainly abetted by United States. Hezbollah remains a dominant political force in Lebanon. Recently, Hezbollah resisted investigation of bombings that took place at the port storage. Yemen is another front where resilient Houthi rebels are not settling for their own territory, orchestrating attacks deep inside Saudi and UAE territories through drones. In Iran, hardliners got stronger in the face of “maximum pressure” campaign by the Trump administration. It did all but reversed gains achieved by the Iran nuclear deal.
Political vacuum, thus, was created mainly by US interventions. US withdrawal will just make the situation worse. Iran now retains an upper hand in the region but challenges are growing by the time. The United States is retreating but its protégé Israel is making inroads in the region. Israel has just to manipulate the Shiite-Sunni divide in the region. And it is doing just the same by normalizing relations with the countries considered enemies by Iran.
So far, Israel has normalised its relations with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and openly but secretly with Saudi Arabia too. Close cooperation of these countries with India makes this assertion more credible.
Two events that are being considered responsible for the loss of US credibility in the region are cited here.
First, the US miserably failed in toppling the Assad regime in Syria despite having all-out support from Gulf States. Russian intervention in Syria was seen as weakness of once-mighty superpower, America.
Second, nuclear deal with Iran was seen as betrayal by Sunni Arabs. Trump administration was sympathetic of this view. But now Biden administration wants diplomacy to prevail, that is, to play safe as before intervention in Iraq, etc.
Here comes Russia with its so-called “Special Military Operation” inside Ukraine. West sanctioned Russia but ultimately created problems for themselves. Economies, which were battered already by the Covid-19 pandemic and global inflation, risked their own population as nearly half of their energy supplies come from Russia. This triggered President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East. Although this visit was seen as a harbinger of Biden’s cherished phrase “America is back,” yet that is not the case. Inflation and hike in gas prices were the main domestic reasons that spurred Biden’s visit. The US demand of increasing oil production was shrugged off easily.
Gulf countries are now deciding their matters on their own. They have also paid lip service for dialogue with Iran. But experts see it as an effort to buy time as Gulf countries are investing in colossal defence procurements. The upper hand of Iran in the Middle East will surely see a Sunni backlash in the region. Qatar, Turkey and Gulf countries supported anti-Shiite groups in the region, including Islamic State (IS).
If Israel is not successful in managing regional order like the US did before its Iraq intervention, flames can easily turn into uncontrollable inferno. Extremism, state collapse, wars over territory and resources and likely Iran-Israel standoff are few dangerous repercussions of leaving the Middle East in a political vacuum.
The United States has to play an active role in this region. Just relying on allies may not be enough. History offers some lessons too. Post-Cold War era abandoning of Mujahideen will be haunting the American administration as same monsters are knocking at the doors of Washington and New York. Someone has rightly said that the examination of our past is never time-wasting. Reverberations from the past provide learning rubrics for living today.
The writer has a master’s degree in International Relations from University of Sargodha.