Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Smart person’s guide to the Middle East

The four powers that stood up against Qatar constitute a strategic alliance that could, with continued effort, fill a strategic vacuum that has destabilised the Middle East, writes Abdel-Moneim Said


اقرأ باللغة العربية

Whether one writes for the press or for academia, defining one’s terms is essential in order to ensure precision and to convey the intended meaning. The term “Middle East” was not invented by its inhabitants or with the people who live in it in mind. It was the invention of European colonialists and meant to designate a region located between the “Near East” (the lands bordering the Mediterranean) and the “Far East” (the lands bordering the Pacific Ocean). It included Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the area we know today as Central Asia. In the course of World War II, followed by the creation of the State of Israel, the Far East slid towards the Mediterranean, shoving the Middle East westward so as to include the Arab states and Israel. Along the way, the conflict between these two somehow became the “Middle East” as in the “Middle East conflict” or “Middle East crisis”. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the southern portion of the Soviet Union — namely the “Islamic” republics — dropped off and merged into the “Middle East” which, thus, expanded eastward to include Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then, with the emergence of terrorism and the extremist fundamentalist organisations that proliferated and became endemic across a vast swathe of territory, the Middle East expanded further to stretch from the borders of China in the east to the shores of the Atlantic in the West and from the Black Sea in the north to the Horn of Africa in the south. Amazingly, the region has not ceased to expand.

Now we find that it has stretched southward through the Sahara into sub-Saharan Africa in tandem with the spread of terrorist organisations from Somalia to Mali.

In that vast space with all its interwoven geopolitical as well as geostrategic dimensions, conflicts are inevitably endless. In a region that can neither forget nor forgive, what happened in history extends far ahead into a future yet to come. In the US, people are amazed to realise that the longest war in US history is no longer World War II (1941-1945) or the US Civil War (1860-1865) but rather the war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 and is still in progress 16 years later. Also, even after the US withdrew from Iraq after a nine-year long war there it soon returned in different forms. Every time the US came to this region or went, it brought fellow NATO countries in its wake.

I recently took part in some discussions in which the central question was whether the so-called Islamic State group is dead. The answer was, firstly, that it still exists and is present in certain parts of Syria and Iraq; secondly, that portions of it have diffused and insinuated themselves into the larger space in both countries; thirdly, that even if IS fell or is about to fall, “Daeshism” persists and continues to defy defeat; and, fourthly, that IS and its terrorist sisters divide and merge like molecular entities and that if they are dividing in the Middle East parts of them will go to the Philippines or to Tora Bora to merge. In short, no one expects the war against terrorism — whether globally, regionally or locally — to end. There is not going to be conference like the one in Versailles after World War I or the Potsdam and San Francisco conferences after World War II or the Camp David meeting to conclude the Egyptian-Israeli peace. The war against terrorism is an open-ended one, chronologically and geographically. The parties that are fighting have no choice but to summon large reserves of patience and adopt a long-term policy aimed at driving terrorism back, containing it and warding off its evils sufficiently in order to continue life as normally as possible.

None of the policies for the war have devised specific perceptions or a comprehensive strategy for a final victory. In most international think tanks, the farthest they go is to conceive of how to win specific battles, never the whole war. Perhaps strategists succeeded in taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the fact that IS made itself physically and geographically present in the “caliphate state”, but the head of the serpent continues to move in many other places. Also, the complexity factor has plenty of scope to operate in this far-flung region called the Middle East. At least the battles that are taking place now have provided cover and a thick fog for geopolitical wars spearheaded regionally by Iran and Turkey and internationally by the US and Russia. Tehran and Ankara are driven by ancient imperial dreams, dreams that intertwine with an “Islamic” and revolutionary state, in the case of Iran, and with the “Muslim Brotherhood” and “neo-Ottomanism” in the case of Turkey. At the same time, while Moscow took the lead in altering realities on the ground in Syria, starting in September 2015, Washington soon caught up from the Iraqi platform after having granted that Syria, in its entirety, is a Russian sphere of influence. Russia had sufficient power and clout to forge an alliance with Turkey and Iran in Astana, perhaps because both Turkey and Iran have forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria as well as followers in Lebanon.

In all events, political geography offers as many openings to ethnic groups as it does to states bent on dismantling countries and building others. The Kurds in Iraq are divided and their government institutions have ground to a halt, but this has not kept them from putting everyone at home and abroad face-to-face with the de facto reality of a referendum on independence set for 25 September. The Kurds in Syria want a full and undiminished autonomous region to take its place next door to an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. How long such a recipe can last is anyone’s guess, but one can easily predict the eruption of another war in the region. Neither Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria are prepared to accept Kurdish independence. Those who have learned the lessons from the experience of South Sudan know that independence is the prelude to civil war in the newly independent region and permanent war with the country from which independence had been attained.

This is the “Middle East” that the “smart” person is dealing with in this part of the world. Perhaps it does not require all that much smarts to realise that this state of operational fluidity between various types of wars, each with their own methods, instruments and alliances, is the product of a strategic vacuum which, in turn, is the result of many causes. As we have mentioned on previous occasions in this column, these causes include the so-called “Arab Spring”, aggressive Iranian behaviour, terrorism and extremism and the intervention of great powers. A turbulent future is in store here for many powers in this region and abroad. The only way to deal with this future intelligently is through an Arab alliance, at the core of which might be the four powers that boycotted Qatar and that are best poised to realise a kind of equilibrium in the region of distorted balances.

Whatever the case, the viability of the strategic alliance depends on a number of conditions. It also requires the addition of Jordan and Iraq and a new approach to Syria in order to rectify the balance. Perhaps it will also necessitate a compound or multi-tiered policy for dealing with the US and Russia. The task is difficult and complicated, especially given that the situation in Washington is complicated and delicate, to say the least. But this is what diplomacy, politics and the intelligent use of resources and capacities are for. In the past, many countries found it convenient to go to the UN by themselves to attain certain goals and interests. The problem, today, is that the international order has conflicting addresses. Europe is awaiting the results of Brexit and, more recently, what will happen in Poland. In Moscow, it is difficult to determine how much of its agenda can be accomplished. In Washington, everyone is acutely aware of how ambiguous the situation is.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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