Jul 23rd 2017

The Middle East’s Next War

by Joschka Fischer

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 until 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

BERLIN – With the retaking of Mosul in northern Iraq, the Islamic State (ISIS) could soon be a thing of the past. But the defeat of ISIS and the demise of its self-proclaimed Iraqi-Syrian caliphate won’t bring peace to the Middle East, or even an end to the Syrian tragedy. Rather, it is likely to open a new chapter in the region’s bloody and chaotic history – one no less dangerous than the previous chapters since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

The continuation of this violent pattern seems almost certain because the region remains unable to resolve internal conflicts on its own, or to create anything like a resilient framework for peace. Instead, it remains trapped somewhere between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Western powers are hardly blameless for the Middle East’s woes. Any mention of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, by which Great Britain and France partitioned the post-Ottoman territories, still incites such rage in the Arab world that it seems as if the plan, devised in secret in 1916, had been conceived only yesterday.

Nor should we forget Czarist Russia’s role in the region. Following World War II, its successor, the Soviet Union, and its Cold War rival, the United States, began their multiple interventions.

Indeed, the US may be the most significant contributor to today’s regional turmoil. America’s interest in the Middle East was originally based on its need for oil. But, with the onset of the Cold War, economic interest quickly morphed into a strategic interest in preventing the emergence of anti-Western, Soviet-friendly governments. America’s effort to maintain decisive influence in the region was then supplemented by its close security partnership with Israel, and finally by the two large military interventions of the two Gulf Wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

America’s involvement in Afghanistan, too, has had profound repercussions for the Middle East. The US-backed insurgency of the 1980s, launched under the banner of jihad against the occupying Soviet Union, transformed two close American allies – Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – into strategic threats. This became clear on September 11, 2001, when it emerged that 15 of the 19 attackers sent by al-Qaeda were Saudi citizens. And it was Pakistan that created the Taliban, which provided al-Qaeda a haven for hatching its plots against the US and the West.

The success of the first Gulf War, launched in January 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, was fatally undermined 12 years later by his son, President George W. Bush, whose own Gulf War caused a regional catastrophe that continues to this day. Whereas the senior Bush had pursued the limited objectives of liberating Kuwait and didn’t seek regime change in Iraq, his son’s aims were far more ambitious.

The idea was to topple Saddam Hussein and bring about a democratic Iraq, which would catalyze comprehensive change throughout the Middle East and transform it into a democratic and pro-Western region. Within the younger Bush’s administration, imperial idealism prevailed over hardheaded realism, resulting in sustained destabilization of the Middle East as a whole and helping to place Iran in a position to expand its influence.

After the Islamic State’s demise, the next chapter in the history of the Middle East will be determined by open, direct confrontation between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for regional predominance. So far, this long-smoldering conflict has been pursued under cover and mostly by proxies. The two global powers active in the region have already clearly positioned themselves in this conflict, with the US siding with Saudi Arabia and Russia with Iran.

The current “war on terror” will increasingly be replaced by this hegemonic conflict. And with Saudi Arabia and four Sunni allies imposing isolation on Qatar, in part owing to the Qataris’ close relations with Iran, this conflict has reached its first potential tipping point at the very center of the region, the Persian Gulf.

Any direct military confrontation with Iran would, of course, set the region ablaze, greatly surpassing all previous Middle East wars. Moreover, with the fires in Syria still smoldering, and Iraq weakened by the sectarian struggle for power there, ISIS or some successor incarnation is likely to remain active.

Another destabilizing factor is the reopening of the “Kurdish question.” The Kurds – a people without a state – have proven to be reliable fighters against ISIS and want to use their new political and military clout to make progress toward autonomy, or even an independent state. For the countries affected – first and foremost Turkey, but also Syria, Iraq, and Iran – this question is a potential casus belli, because it affects their territorial integrity.

Given these unresolved questions and the escalation of the hegemonic conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the next chapter in the region’s history promises to be anything but peaceful. Yes, the US may have learned from the Iraq disaster that it cannot win a land war in the Middle East, despite its vastly superior military power. President Barack Obama sought to withdraw US forces from the region, which proved difficult to achieve both politically and militarily. That’s why he ruled out military intervention – even from the air – in the Syrian civil war, leaving a vacuum that Russia quickly filled, with all of the known consequences.

Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, also campaigned on a promise to withdraw from the region. Since the election, he has launched cruise missiles at Syria, entered into more comprehensive commitments toward Saudi Arabia and its allies, and escalated America’s confrontational rhetoric vis-à-vis Iran.

Trump clearly faces a steep learning curve when it comes to the Middle East – a region that won’t wait for him to master it. There is no reason to be optimistic.


Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The world economy has clearly caught a cold. The outbreak of COVID-19 came at a particularly vulnerable point in the global business cycle. ...........This matters little to the optimistic consensus of investors. After all, by definition shocks are merely temporary disruptions of an underlying trend. While it is tempting to dismiss this shock for that very reason, the key is to heed the implications of the underlying trend. The world economy was weak, and getting weaker, when COVID-19 struck. The V-shaped recovery trajectory of a SARS-like episode will thus be much tougher to replicate – especially with monetary and fiscal authorities in the US, Japan, and Europe having such little ammunition at their disposal. That, of course, was the big risk all along. In these days of dip-buying froth, China’s sneeze may prove to be especially vexing for long-complacent financial markets."
Feb 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this new coronavirus is likely to do much more damage than SARS. Not only has COVID-19 already caused more deaths than its predecessor; its economic consequences are likely to be compounded by unfavorable conditions – beginning with China’s increased economic vulnerability.................So far, US investors seem unconcerned about these risks. But they may be taking too much comfort from the US Federal Reserve’s three interest-rate cuts last year. Should the US economy falter, there is nowhere near enough room for the Fed to cut interest rates by 500 basis points, as it has in past recessions."
Feb 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."
Feb 18th 2020
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report. Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents. Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Does this mean that the dream of European unity is over? Does the exodus of a member state obliterate the vision of Victor Hugo and Václav Havel? Does Europe now fit the description of what the great American president Abraham Lincoln called a house divided against itself? Not necessarily. History is more imaginative than we are. The EU still has the option of keeping Britain close in heart and mind. We can still benefit from our absent partner, by resurrecting the partnership through our actions."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.........Will the GOP-led Senate’s endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So all that is why Cramer is talking about the death knell of petroleum stocks. We probably agree on almost nothing else, but when people are right, you have to give them credit. He is right."
Feb 3rd 2020
EXTRACT: "........as the citizens of the remaining 27 states have observed the destabilising impact that the referendum decision has had on British politics, they have been inoculated against the desire to secede from the EU. Outside the UK, national-populist parties have moderated their anti-EU rhetoric and nowadays profess to want to change the EU from within instead of destroying it."
Feb 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Senators will soon decide whether to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump without hearing any witnesses. In making this decision, I believe they should consider words spoken at the Constitutional Convention, when the Founders decided that an impeachment process was needed to provide a “regular examination,” to quote Benjamin Franklin. A critical debate took place on July 20, 1787, which resulted in adding the impeachment clause to the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, the oldest and probably wisest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, said that when the president falls under suspicion, a “regular and peaceable inquiry” is needed."
Feb 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Britain will be celebrating its glorious independence from the complications of international cooperation at a time when the intellectual, political, and economic hostility between China’s communist leadership and liberal democracies is becoming ever clearer. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must stand up for itself. And we should be under no illusion: open societies under the rule of law, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hostile sights. The West should not aim to encircle or pen in China. But liberal democracies cannot allow it to distort international norms in its own favor."
Jan 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Switzerland and Denmark have gone furthest into negative territory, both offering unprecedentedly low rates of -0.75%. The Swiss National Bank, which has kept its rate at this level since 2015, signalled recently that it intends to stick with this experiment and is not ruling out going even more negative. It has said that negative rates were boosting the economy and that the country’s fundamentals were not being significantly affected."
Jan 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand,......Without assuming any fundamental technological breakthroughs, we could certainly build by 2050 a global economy in which electricity met 65-70% of final energy demand,....."
Jan 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the world economy operating dangerously close to stall speed, the confluence of ever-present shocks and a sharply diminished trade cushion raises serious questions about financial markets’ increasingly optimistic view of global economic prospects."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."