Perhaps no region has witnessed more disorder in recent decades than West Asia. Much of the tumult is manmade and a consequence of Western ambitions that sought to remake the region. The dramatic removal of a pivotal Arab state – Iraq – in the heart of the region opened a historical phase whose impact continues to be felt. Like a Shakespearean drama, each subsequent move seems unable to correct the one fatal debacle: a war of choice in 2003. Think about the implications of 2003. It removed a secular Iraqi state that had held three major ethnic communities – Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – under one flag. A regional power able to counteract the ambitions of multiple local pretenders. An oil rich prize that could have financed regional growth and global industrialization for decades. The West Asian order was by no means an ideal one. But it served its purpose. Stability with local powers maintaining equilibrium that merely required external management or deterrence in times of crisis.
Fast forward to the contemporary situation. Local sub-national identities are flourishing. States are more fragile than ever, teetering on failure. A radical Wahabi version of Islam is attaining a pan-regional grip undermining not just Iraq but its entire periphery. And, the predominant external actor – America – has been compelled to deepen its strategic and tactical attention and involvement on a literally daily basis even as its capacity and inclination to play such an onerous role seems uncertain. The leadership vacuum reached such a nadir after the 2011 Arab Spring that regional states began pursuing parochial solutions to regional problems. Some suggest, not without reason, that Washington rode the Arab Spring hoping to undermine uncooperative regimes and shape the power balance in favour of its allies. The gamble failed. The final and most dramatic move came with Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria in September 2015. This event has introduced a variable that is likely to shape West Asian geopolitics for many years. No other great power has the capacity to project power or the will to intervene in an area inhabited by numerous Western-allied states.
Lets look at the key local actors in the West Asian drama. While militarily, Israel is the most capable and sole nuclear armed state in the region, its ability to shape regional politics is nearly non-existent. Neither can Israel intervene beyond limited punitive interventions beyond its periphery, and, with Russia’s presence in Syria, that too is no longer a unilateral decision but one of careful coordination with the bear. Israel’s indirect influence over US regional policy, however, is formidable as anyone who tracks the American national conversation on the Middle East will attest.
Turkey is another conventionally militarily capable state and a NATO member state. But its domestic politics over the past decade, where a street Islamic culture has displaced secular institutions, has pervaded Turkey’s foreign policy. Its involvement as a frontline state in the Syrian conflict is not dissimilar to Pakistan’s role as a destabilizer in South Asia. Two factors, however, now constrain a more expansive role for Turkey. The first is Turkey’s Kurdish problem. The Kurdish people constitute the largest ethnic minority accounting for 20-25 percent of the population who resent and resist centralised rule. This implies every external Turkish move at interference in neighbouring states has a potential blowback to its vulnerable Southeastern Kurdish populated region. Second, Russia’s deployed presence on Turkey’s southern frontiers has complicated Erdogan’s ambitious domestic-external power play to transform Turkey’s image into a modern day Ottoman power.
As historian Norman Stone warned after the downing of a Russian military aircraft by Turkey, “provoking Russia over Syria may be a step too far” for Turkey. A senior Russian scholar Semyon Bagdasarov recently remarked, “The (pro-Kurdish) Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) wanted to enlist Russia’s support very much because a true civil war has broken out in southeastern Turkey. The Kurds need external support.” In late December, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted a delegation led by Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party leader Selahattin Demirtas in what was a clear move against Ankara. Russia is probably also planning ahead because the secular Kurds inhabit strategic parts of Syria and Iraq and would welcome Russian support in their fight against the ISIL and other extremist Sunni groups.
Egypt is another potentially influential state that has been weakened by economic problems and the struggle between an authoritarian structure and a more overt radical street Islam that was strengthened during the Arab Spring. Despite the brief interlude when a civil war seemed possible, it appears Egypt’s secular culture and nationalism has enabled its military rulers to keep an alternative governing arrangement espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni radicals at bay. Yet, financial dependence on other regional states such as Saudi Arabia has ruled out any substantial role for Egypt beyond keeping its own house in order.
Moving eastward on the regional chessboard, it is the Persian Gulf that has so far remained relatively insulated to the crises that we have seen in the rest of the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia remain critical players in the search for a regional template. Iran, as many argue, has been a strategic beneficiary of the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq and its subsequent mismanagement. Although Iran was probably next in line for an imperial lesson, the Iraq fiasco, held the hand of Western hardliners. The strategy has shifted towards a partial accommodation of Iran although it is more complex and sophisticated than just a game of diplomacy. At one level, the US has been seeking to blunt Iran’s geopolitical influence by encouraging its Sunni allies including Turkey to project proxy forces into Iraq and Syria, two areas where Iranian influence has increased in the past decade. At another level, Washington has been seeking to shape the domestic balance within Iranian politics, hoping that moderate pro-western urban groups can increase their legitimacy and political power relative to the dominant hardliners and Revolutionary Guards.
US policy seems to be premised on demonstrating the rising costs of an ambitious Iranian role beyond its western frontiers and simultaneously holding the carrot of greater access to the global economy via a nuclear deal. Assad’s collapse in Syria would have reverberated loudly in domestic Iranian politics with a loss of face for the hardliners. This is what makes the timing of Russian intervention in Syria last summer even more interesting. In July 2015 just days after the announcement of the Iran nuclear deal, General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force within the Revolutionary Guards, had travelled to Moscow to coordinate operational issues around a Russian military role to salvage the Assad regime. In November, in a historic move, Putin met the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, which the Iranians described as “unprecedented in the history of both countries”. Iran’s centrality to West Asian security has impelled both Washington and Moscow to design their geostrategies with each great power seeking to bolster their preferred domestic allies within Iran. The February parliamentary elections in Iran are expected to reveal some aspects of the internal dynamic and the political temperature within Iran. Nevertheless, the control over the security apparatus and the high degree of autonomy of the Revolutionary Guards and its external special forces unit, the Quds force, suggests Iran’s wider regional role cannot be easily dislodged.
Syria, Iraq and Yemen are different fronts for a common struggle for influence between the Sunni monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and Iran. A few days ago, this proxy contest threatened to escalate into a direct confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran after Riyadh’s provocative decision to execute a prominent Shiite cleric along with a number of Sunni extremists. Many opine that Saudi Arabia’s domestic situation and the rising vulnerability of the regime, a year after the demise of King Abdullah, explains this recent provocation. For David Ignatius, this could be a “defensive, anxious Saudi leadership” trying “to show its resolve” by executing extremists and ratcheting up tensions with Iran. Iran’s media has also interpreted Riyadh’s “stirring up regional tensions” as “a bid to divert attention from a convoluted power restructuring which is currently underway in the kingdom.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman stated, “The Saudi regime is currently facing a crisis of identity, legitimacy and efficiency”.
With its proxies losing ground in Syria and a bleak oil market (Saudi Arabia has one of the highest fiscal break-even points at nearly $100 per barrel with the IMF projecting a 20 percent budget deficit in 2016), Riyadh’s geopolitical and economic misfortunes have intersected to present a structural challenge to Saudi Arabia’s regional role and its internal stability. A fumbling and costly military intervention in Yemen (estimated at $1 billion per month) to beat back a Houthi rebellion supported by Tehran further exposed the Kingdom’s prestige and tainted its image as a capable regional power. Iran, in contrast, possesses a much more durable governance system. Robust sanctions since 2008 cost Iran nearly $200 billion in lost revenues or frozen funds, and yet, was unable to make any real dent in the regime’s basic stability. Now, as a strategic beneficiary of Russia’s regional presence, Iran looks a more capable player with more room to maneuver.
A deeper fear for Riyadh must be the prospect of Iran enjoying the benefit of a less hostile equation with the West while retaining much of its regional heft. To be sure, America’s strategic commitment to Saudi Arabia remains undiminished as reflected in large arms sales in 2015, and, in the fact that the Yemeni war could not have been waged without US strategic and tactical support. Pakistan has also come out in support of Riyadh with both Nawaz Sharif and the Army Chief Raheel Sharif standing by Saudi Arabia in a visit by the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman. According to General Sharif, “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.” For the US, such Pakistani boots are a valuable insurance policy. Clearly, the US is well positioned to mobilise a response to conventional threats. But the capacity of the US to resuscitate and salvage the Kingdom from ethnic cleavages or the vagaries of the oil market is less evident.
A regional order is built on shared ideas of stability and order. These include certain norms of behaviour that most states in a region abide by despite their national antagonisms and conflicts. What makes West Asia unpredictable, in contrast to South Asia and East Asia, is the rules of the game are murky, are changing frequently, and, the external great powers exude ambiguity about the extent of their role, interests and strategic commitments. Further, the regional power shift away from the erstwhile predominant security alignment in West Asia (US-Israel-Turkey-Sunni monarchies) has added a dynamic variable to the region. It could produce the search for a new order or incentivize more competition. Given the US has more diverse strategic commitments and dependent regional actors compared to Russia’s more nimble and defined role, it is hardly in American interest to encourage a destabilizing scorched earth type of strategy simply to deny other independent actors a rising role in the region.
The fate of the Syrian insurgency after Russia and Iran’s coordinated division of labour in Syria suggests a new balance of power is emerging. This has created winners and losers and has shattered the ambitions of some such as Turkey. An optimist might forecast a US-Russia détente under a new American presidency later this year having a calming effect on West Asia’s geopolitics. But the dominant view in the US security establishment still perceives West Asia as a great game with Russia’s new role and Iran’s undiminished capacity to project power across the region as a structural challenge to the US and its allies. Beyond avoiding a direct collision, both Washington and Moscow are likely to maintain their competitive regional postures, which might intersect from time to time. Iran as a swing power can alter the regional balance and might very well emerge as the fulcrum that shapes West Asia’s future.
The writer is research scholar at King’s College London
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