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JUNE 2023

Foreign Policy Diary – The Violence in Middle East (in-depth analysis)

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The Iranian nuclear deal doesn’t mean a calm of the conflicts in the Middle East. Tehran’s opponents in the region will curb the expansion of Iranian influence enforced by the chance of lifting the sanctions from the Islamic Republic. This will not immediately result in all-out warfare in the region, but it most likely will entail a growth of violence in Middle Eastern battle-grounds of Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other opponents of Iran are well experienced in the use of proxy forces including a diverse range of terrorist organizations and paramilitary groups. Thus, the situation in the region will likely worsen on multiple fault lines: Sunni versus Shiite, a war on terrorist groups as ISIL and ethnic conflicts among Turks, Iranians, Arabs, Kurds, and other groups.

The rise of the violence will come amid the bureaucratic chaos. Despite the fact that the Iran Nuclear deal has passed the U.N. Security Council, it will be extremely difficult for both houses of the U.S. Congress to find the two-thirds votes necessary to prevent the lifting of certain U.S. sanctions levied against the Islamic Republic. Normalization with the US isn’t on the horizon for the near future while US allies in the region have already started to act as Iran has already come to it’s full economic power and is threatening them with an invasion. Saudi Arabia’s ground operation in Yemen and Turkey’s attempts to establish a zone of military occupation in northern Syria clearly mark this approach. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the heavyweights in the balance of power the United States seeks to create in the Middle East. The most vociferous critic of the Iran nuclear deal has been Israel. The Iran deal is obviously not in Israel’s interests and marks an evolution in the relationship between Israel and the United States. Israel represents the United States’ insurance policy for the game it is playing. If the US decides, Israel may be forced to back US-provoked conflicts in the coming years. Also, it is important not to shrug off Qatar, which was the one of primary powers that helped the US create ISIL.

Turkey is the largest economy in the Middle East and is strategically situated at the confluence of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, on the Sea of Marmara. Like the United States, Turkey has some conflicting interests with Iran. For one, Turkey depends on Iranian oil, which in 2014, constituted up 26 percent of Turkey’s oil imports. Moreover, Turkey is one of the biggest markets for Iranian natural gas. However, Turkey is a Sunni power rival to the Shiite Iran, and of the three Sunni heavyweights. It is also the most capable and equipped to oppose Iran’s objectives. Turkey claims the Middle East as its sphere of influence and will not look kindly on any country encroaching on its ambitions. Besides the economic links between the two powers, Tehran and Ankara have some strategic disagreements. For example, Turkey roughly opposes the rise of an independent Kurdish state as result of the Syrian and the Iraqi conflict. Almost 15 percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, and Ankara has had to contend with a Kurdish insurgency since 1984. Moreover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said his country will never allow the establishment of a Kurdish independent state. Meanwhile, Tehran has at times offered military support to Kurds fending off the Islamic State in Iraq. Iran also has a Kurdish population of its own, estimated at a minimum of 5.5 million Kurds. Kurdistan is the natural battleground between Turkey and Iran, both sides will actively move on this ground. Turkey’s relationship with the Islamic State is an another problem. Turkey has supported a militant group providing logistical support and buying ISIL’s oil for a long time. However, the Islamic State could become a domestic threat for Turkey even in the case of changing Turkey’s public rhetoric to Islamic State criticism. Turkey has been adamant about seeing the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, actively supplying and training militants to fight Damascus. At the moment, Turkey is considering moving its military into northern Syria to create a buffer zone that would prevent Syrian Kurdish expansion, enabling Ankara-backed militants, including ISIL to focus their resources on continuing the assault on the al Assad government.

Saudi Arabia hopes to lead a broad Sunni Arab coalition against Iran and doesn’t have any shared interests with Iran. The kingdom is an Arab, Sunni power, and the Wahhabism sect of Islam to which most Saudis subscribe views Shiites with deep disdain. With an oppressed Shiite minority making up at least 10 percent of it’s population and aggressive ambitions traced back to the socalled Arab Spring’ exercised in league with the US, Saudi Arabia feels itself on the front line of the conflict with Iran. Moreover, most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population lives in close proximity to the country’s massive oil fields, which are the source of Saudi wealth and power. In 2011, Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to repress unrest in the Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority country. The Riyadh’s discrimination policy against Shiites is a challenge for Iran, which is attempting to become a defender of the Shia population. Saudi Arabia fears that Iran might use the arisen Shia belt and Shia minorities in Sunni-governed countries to extend its reach in the Gulf. As a Wahhabi state, Saudi Arabia naturally provides the ground for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and has a long history of using them as proxy forces in the Middle East. Like Turkey, Saudi Arabia wants to see the downfall of the al Assad government, which would deal a crippling blow to anti-terrorist opposition in the region. Saudi Arabia has been supporting Sunni militants in Syria fighting against loyalist forces. Separately, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been roughly cooperating with the Saudi-led coalition in clashes against the Al Houthi government of Yemen. In 2014, Saudi Arabia did attempt to start a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, but this effort quickly deteriorated with the beginning of the conflict in Yemen. Riyadh focused on battling the Shiites in the rest of the region hardly could become an ally of Iran. In turn, the capacity of Iran to provoke Shia minority groups is a current problem of Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia has very little interest in seeing Turkey dominate the Middle East also.

Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, is an Arab, Sunni power, but it’s ability to act is much more constrained than Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Egyptian forces are active in Yemen, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was in Russia this past week to discuss economic ties and the situation in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, Egypt faces serious internal issues of it’s own as social unrest and jihadist threats in the country, including disturbingly attacks in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula. For instance, Wilayat Sinai pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and has launched a full-scale offensive on government-controlled territories in July. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have increased their cooperation in recent months and may try to pool their resources to protect their influence in the region. A joint Arab defense force under development could easily become part of this plan and is one of Cairo’s ways of attempting to maintain an important role. However, we mustn’t forget that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a big problem with military forces indicated by a high corruption, a low motivation and the level of training, and a lack of a real experience on the battle ground. Evidence of these statements is the lack of success in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen against the al Houthi forces despite the serious advantage in air forces, military equipment and man power.

Qatar, a tiny but wealthy Arab state with the largest naval American base in the region, has provided an initial financing for the Islamic State. Qatar also provided another important “service” – propaganda – in the form of a recruitment campaign to convince Muslims that fighting in Syria is a “Jihad” against the infidels, meaning all Syrians. Egyptian-born Qatari Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, issued the necessary fatwa on Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera, where he not only publicly blessed the terrorist campaign against Syria, but also urged Muslims everywhere to join the Islamic State. IS militants started beheading Westerners and using the universal reach of social media with the help of foreign experts. At the moment, ISIL has risen to the level when Qatar hasn’t had a direct influence on the group. However, it will be questionable if Qatar doesn’t have enough contacts to exercise soft control of the group.

Washington signed a deal with Iran to achieve a mid term goal to release US military and economic resources in the region and attempt to hurt to Russia. The idea of the establishing relationship with the White House should encourage Iran to break the alliance with Russia and China, and to take the US side in the ongoing energy wars. Iran has a chance to provide oil and gas on the European energy market. This will affect energy prices and, obviously, Russia negatively. Moreover, as soon as the sanctions will be lifted, Iran will get additional economic revenue and it’s budget will rise and allow Teheran to increase defense spending. It’s commonplace that Iran and Hezbollah are the rival enemies of Israel. So, the rise of Iran’s defense budget will mean a rise in danger for Israel from the directions of Lebanon and the Golan Heights. As Iran probably has nuclear weapons and Israel definitely does, Israel will strongly disapprove of Washington’s line. At a minimum, it will mean the rise of Israeli operations in the region and a real chance of the carrying out of preventative strikes on Iran and its allies’ military objects by Israeli Defense Forces.

Overall, the Middle East after the Iran nuclear deal will not face less violence or war. It will face more destabilization and violence because of the competition between rival players encouraged by the possibility of Iranian dominance in the region. These actions will proceed amid the power vacuums and a rise of the terrorist threats conducted by the US and its allies. A diverse range of militant groups supported today by the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, as well as local militias and groups, will find new space in which to operate. Also, the situation will be marked by the growth of direct military involvement of regional states in conflicts. On the tactical level the main competition in the region will become increasingly about Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar using various groups to compete against one other, rather than groups taking advantage of failed states to carve out small fiefdoms of power and responsibility for themselves. On the strategic level, the US will play it’s own game using the situation in the Middle East expand the area of the permanent war in the region which opens additional ways for the US to destabilize geopolitical opponents in the region and throughout the world. Here are two possible reasons for the Obama administration’s actions in the Middle East: The first is the Washington strategists understand that the sanctions won’t be lifted from Iran because the U.S. Congress is in hard opposition to the President. Thus, it’s a US game to raise the pressure on Russia, by dropping the oil prices and reminding Saudi Arabia who is the real power in the Persian Gulf. The second is the US has been trying to provoke a full-scale military conflict and has betrayed its main ally in the region, Israel, to gain questionable benefits. The war becomes closer and closer to the Russian and China borders amid the US’s destructive actions and the EU’s inability to appropriately react on threats of  regional security. The Russian Federation has to take steps to ensure peace in Europe and Northern Asia. On August 17, Russia delivered 6 MiG-31 fighter jets to the Syrian government. Russian flight trainers will most likely train their Middle Eastern counterparts. Currently, Russian bases in Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are also set in a high-alert posture and a defensive line has likely been established in Tajikistan.


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