Category Archives: Balance of Power in the Middle East

The Rise of Iran

Source: Reuters

One could be led to believe that it all started in 2013 with the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency of Iran. Rouhani, along with his moderate and reformist agenda, bore much optimism among Western countries that Iran might shift direction towards a more pragmatic and less anti-Western foreign policy. But this was not what put Iran to the epicenter of the Middle East and international politics.

Iran’s increasing influence and rising role in the broader region has been prompted by three main developments: a) the Iraq war of 2003; b) the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq by 2011; c) and the failure of Western policies in the case of Syria’s civil war in conjunction with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (henceforth, ISIS). Rouhani and the new round of negations about Iran’s nuclear program are only “the cherry on the pie.” Continue reading

The Geopolitical Impact of ISIS: Actors, Factors, and Balances of Power in the Middle East

Isis fighters, pictured on a militant website verified by AP.

Source: The Guardian

The ISIS Threat

Generally speaking, the emergence of ISIS has posed a significant security threat to regional and international states alike; a threat which challenges the stability and territorial integrity of regional states as well as Western regional interests. As known from International Relations and particularly Realism literature, (mutual) security threats are one of the most important factors in the formation of different kinds of alliances. As such, it is without surprise that we see unlike partnerships to emerge, such as the ones mentioned below. Continue reading

Syrian Crisis: Facts and «Collateral Damages»

In terms of the Syrian crisis it is already clear that certain issues will keep playing a decisive role in the upcoming developments, or that they could constitute outcomes of the conflict. These issues could be divided into internal and external.

As far as the external issues are concerned, it has become obvious that the al-Assad regime has by its side the undisputable powers of Russia and China. It is noteworthy that these two countries have recently announced that they will not be accepting any western intervention in Syria, thus responding to Obama who said that the use of chemical weapons by the regime would be a “red line” for the US and a reason for the use of military force. In this light, opponents of the Syrian regime remain the western states with leading country the US, while Turkey plays a central regional role against the Assad regime – both as a meeting centre of regional and international actors for the management of the crisis and the organization of the Syrian opposition/resistance, as well as a refugee hosting centre and a (indirect) supporter of the Syrian rebels. Important role in supporting the rebels are also playing Arab countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, while it has been reported that N. Iraq trains and reinforces Syrian Kurds for the armed resistance within Syria. Moreover, Turkey and the US have been discussing along with other western allies the establishment of a partial no-fly zone over Syria for the protection of non-combatants. In the context of the external dynamics of the Syrian crisis, it important to mention Iran which is one of the very few allies of the Syrian regime and one of the reasons why the US (and Israel, among others) want Assad replaced.

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The Struggle Over Syria

It is unquestionable that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute. Thousands of people have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, and Turkey hosts almost 20,000 refugees. While the account is tragic and discouraging already, the Assad regime does not stop shelling his own country’s cities and killing his own people. In this climate, the international community – if there is such a coherent thing – is trying to manage the crisis. It is true that for most of the international actors involved, what is going on in Syria is unfortunate and they would frankly rather not to be dealing with it.

It is obvious that Russia and China for example do not want another US puppet-state in the Middle East after Assad, while Iran is at the brink of losing perhaps its most valuable regional ally. Israel, more than the US, sees the crisis as an opportunity to weaken Iran’s regional power, while the US, although it wants Assad gone, is more cautious and reluctant to get drawn into another endless war that might involve Iran, especially during an election period. Turkey, on the other hand, after almost 13 years of increasingly good relations with Syria, since the 1998 crisis and the Öcalan case, is really unhappy that it has to return to the same old insecurity about its territorial integrity and the fear that Syria might support the secessionist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party); let alone the fragile diplomatic balance that it wants to maintain between the US and Iran.

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Possible Geopolitical Implications of the Syrian Crisis

As the crisis in Syria keeps escalating and the violent crackdown of the Bashar al-Assad regime results in more civilian deaths, the growing instability and civil opposition is significantly challenging the die-hard regime and raises questions regarding how much longer it can keep up with the deteriorating domestic situation and the increasing international pressure. More importantly, the troubling question that emerges is what might happen when the regime is finally overthrown?
While people in Syria and the West want a major change to take place in the country, the same cannot be said for some of the other states of the Middle East. Even if western countries want al-Assad to step down they will not intervene in Syria as easily as they did in Libya because this time there is much more at stake since Syria is geographically and geopolitically located at the heart of the Middle East and all of its problems. One needs only to look at a map of Syria and observe the countries with which it shares a border (Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) to recognize this.
Syria also has political and strategic ties with actors that are hostile to the West such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Paradoxically, during the last decade or so Damascus has been maintaining good relationships with Turkey, a mostly western ally, as well. Nonetheless, for the last few months Turkey has been pressuring Assad to stop the violent crackdown and step down. This shift in Ankara’s behavior towards Syria was a concern for other states in the region like Iran – for various reasons which are examined below. From that perspective it seems that if the regime in Syria were to be overthrown and replaced with a pro-western one, the allies of the present Syrian regime could react in unpredictable ways out of fear, possibly disturbing the regional geopolitical realities and even the balance of power.
Iran is already worried because of Turkey’s stance towards the Syrian crisis. During the last decade the good relations between Syria and Turkey, the Kurdish problem that both states face and the “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine of Turkish foreign policy, have brought Iran and Turkey closer to each other. Yet their good relations, in the context of their competition for regional hegemony and their traditional enmity, can still be questioned. For Iran in particular, the commercial and economic bonds that were developed between itself and Turkey were of vital significance since they constituted a way out of the western embargo (which was mainly imposed to counter its nuclear policies) and give impetus to its development aims. Furthermore, Turkey was a key ally for Iran given the always tense situation between Tehran and Tel Aviv and the fact that Turkey’s relations with Israel have been in decline for the last three years. On the other hand, Turkey used its cooperation with Iran to attain more stability in the transnational Kurdish territories, for economic reasons and of course to approach the Arab-Muslim world including the Palestinians. The increasingly strained relations between Turkey and Israel and the development of better relations between Turkey, Syria and Iran have increased Ankara’s prominence among the Arab countries while creating tensions within the western-Israel alliance.
If the Syrian regime were to be replaced with a pro-western one, a number of things could happen. Iran might turn against the new Syrian regime and Turkey for supporting the change while Turkey would probably lose the support of Lebanon, Palestine and probably of other Middle East countries as well. The instability or even sectarian conflicts that could possibly emerge in Syria would create the necessary conditions for the Kurds to intensify their efforts for autonomy thus creating instability and conflicts in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran as well. These, in turn, could lead Israel to adopt a harder stance towards Iran and therefore force the US to undertake a more active role in backing it. Within this context Turkey’s developing solidarity with the Arab-Muslim world could fall apart and the doctrine of “zero problems” would face a setback. Hence Ankara would once again have to rely on its traditional western allies, which it has been largely neglecting of late. This, of course, would depend on Turkey’s ability to strike a balance between its old friends and its new potential enemies, especially now that it would have to face the great Iranian threat.
The above scenario may not come to fruition, yet it is far from implausible. Such a scenario would create new regional and international alliances thereby changing the current order and balance of power in the Middle East. The possibility alone of such a development indicates both the geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Syria and the reasons why the international community finds it more difficult to intervene there than it did in Libya. Even as the humanitarian crisis that is taking place there worsens, and evidence of genocide emerges, the Syrian crisis is far more complicated than the Libyan one and should consequently be handled with caution by the international community.
Zenonas Tziarras, Global Politics Online Magazine (www.global-politics.co.uk), 4 Sep. 2011.

The Bahrain Chess Game

While the revolution in Libya has for many turned into a civil war between the rebels and the pro-Gaddafi forces, the situation in Bahrain is also deteriorating. The intensification of the demonstrations and the possibility of this turning into a violent conflict could have serious implications for the Middle East and the US in the near future.

Even though the revolution in Bahrain has similar socio-economic characteristics as other revolutions in the region, it also has an ethnic-religious component. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led the Shiias to escalate their already protracted struggle against the discriminatory policies of the ruling Sunni minority. Furthermore, the Sunni government has strong relations with America’s ally, Saudi Arabia whereas the Shiias have strong bonds with Iran, which has been accused of fuelling the demonstrations in Bahrain.

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Between Democracy and Islam

The seismic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya coupled with the riots and demonstrations in Jordan and Iran have shaken the region and the world. Whilst the results of these revolutions thus far have varied, no one can doubt that the Middle East left behind will never be the same again. What do these revolutionary movements herald for this volatile part of the globe and what would democratic reform mean for these countries and the West?
 
In the cases of Libya and Egypt, what has happened could be characterised as a revolution since elements within either the police or the military sided with the demonstrators to a greater or lesser extent. However, in other cases such as Iran or Bahrain the demonstrations have so far been contained relatively easily by the regimes.

One characteristic of the revolutions in the Middle East has been the lack of organisation, the absence of common goals amongst the demonstrators, and an inability to look beyond the present task of getting rid of the incumbent. In this sense, even though the media have presented these demonstrations as being pro-democratic, they are essentially anti-regime. They have also been characterised as movements driven by radical Islamist ideas which could, as Gadaffi warned ominously, transform one state after another into a potentially more extreme version of Iran. Yet in the example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the party most likely to rise to power after Mubarak – we have not seen evidence that it is willing or able to take the reins of power. On the other hand, we cannot easily disregard the possibility that Islamist radicals might take advantage of the virtual state of civil war in Libya. Moreover, since the Libyan military is already deeply divided it is unlikely that it will be able to maintain the same degree of relative stability as its Egyptian counterpart did recently, leaving a definite opening for Islamist groups to exploit in a post-Gadaffi state.

After such powerful demonstrations against Arab regimes, it is clear that whatever forms of governance develop, due attention must be given to the public’s demands if peace and stability are to be sustained. In Egypt and Libya, as well as in most of the other states where repressed societies are confronting their respective regimes, the next governments that come to power either by force or through elections could easily be Islamist. Whether the states that emerge are moderate or radical, the parliaments which are formed will almost certainly have a strong Islamist representation.

Thus, the pluralistic template of government which the West is advocating as the answer to the region’s problems could easily have negative results for western interests if Islamic parties gain influence, even if they are democratically-inclined. The result would be a region where an element of Islamic governance and democracy coexist as seen in the case of Turkey. Such a model, containing a paradoxical mixture of economic liberalism and cultural-religious conservatism, would likely preserve a significant degree of Islamic nationalism, both in foreign and domestic policy, in order to maintain social cohesion.

If we use the Turkish model of governance to analyse the future of the regimes in transition, we can easily envisage a region where Islamism has a very prominent role. Such a model would allow the Arab-Muslim states to develop economically through trade and increased financial ties with the West. Conversely though, the common element of Islamism could also intensify feelings of solidarity among Muslim states, while not necessarily reviving the idea of Pan-Arabism.

Equally significant is the impact that such a development might have on the balance of power not only in the Middle East but also internationally. Countries such as Egypt and Libya might no longer support American operations in the Middle East as they have previously. As seen in 2003, Ankara refused to allow American troops to enter Northern Iraq though Turkish soil to prevent any negative ramifications for Turkish interests in Kurdish Iraq or Kurdistan.

Therefore, there is a huge amount at stake for the US and the West as these momentous events continue to play out. Crises like those in Egypt and Libya recently illustrate the misguided strategic planning of the US with respect to the Middle East in emphasizing the stability of local regimes over a desire to see their Arab clients promote genuine democratic values. If the revolutions in the Middle East unfold as has been suggested above, then, the emergence of a distinct Islamic pole in the center of the world map is far from implausible.

Posted on www.global-politics.co.uk on March 5, 2011