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The Near Future of the Middle East

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The activity of the players in the region will depend on the price of oil

The Near Future of the Middle East

Smoke rises from Tuffah neighborhood after Israeli air strikes in the east of Gaza City. (Mohammed Saber / EPA)

Written by Evgenii Satanovskii; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by J. Trefz exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Desislava Tzoneva

The situation in the Middle East is rapidly changing, with its influence being felt throughout the global order. Streams of refugees and migrants from this region are re-shaping European politics and the relationship between Europe and Turkey. Near-eastern drug trafficking is a problem on a global scale. Terrorist groups are expanding the sphere of their influence in the region, and with the help of internet technology and the principle of ‘individual jihad’, in the whole world.

Relying on material from IPM Expert, J. P. Yurchenko, we assess the situation in the region and the prospects for its development, individually highlighting Syria and Iraq, on whose territory the Islamic State (IS), a banned organisation in Russia, is active.

A Temporary Lull

The main point of impact regarding the military-political situation in the region in the medium term, is whether an agreement will be reached over the Iranian Nuclear Programme and whether the sanctions on Tehran will be lifted. This is part of the ongoing US strategy to rebuild the balance of power in the region, which was destroyed by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

The system will be characterised by the preservation of the Shiite-Sunni confrontation, the basis of which is the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The pivotal points of this confrontation remain Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. Tehran and Riyadh will influence the forces directly involved in the military conflicts: through various subversive operations, such as support for the Shia underground in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia, or sponsorship of Arab separatists in Khuzestan and Baluchis in Iran.

The strategically-destabilising effect on the regimes of these countries means that Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue on the course of creating their own modern weaponry, primarily tactical missile systems and drones. Much attention will be paid to the creation of cyber-security systems. The constraining factor for these programmes will continue to be instability in the hydrocarbon market.

The Sunnis will reduce the conflict between the major players on the Saudi-Qatari axis, who are active in Libya and Egypt. Saudi involvement in the Libyan crisis will increase. Turkey will continue with its subversive activities in Syria, increasing its material and technical-military support to loyal forces. The main vector of Ankara’s strategy is not aimed at the overthrow of the Assad regime, which would be unrealistic due to the presence of Russian aerospace forces in the country, nor is it aimed at the reduced danger of the creation of a Kurdish territorial buffer on the Syrian border.

If the Kurds take Azazi and start operating west of the Euphrates, Turkey will most likely mount a limited military operation. It is possible that there will be an attempt to renew dialogue with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party on a ceasefire. The Turkish-Qatari Alliance will be strengthened in the framework of a unified strategy in Libya, Syria and the Sinai Peninsula.

A military coup in Turkey against the background of the split in the ruling Party of Justice and Development, is impossible. It is possible that political groups opposing Erdogan, including the military and supporters of Imam Gülen, will attempt to assassinate him. This may strengthen Turkey’s ties with the US and reduce the scale of Turkey’s participation in the Syrian conflict.

After IS infrastructure in Syria is destroyed, the process of weakening it in Iraq will begin, amid growing Iranian influence in that country. Tehran will influence Baghdad, despite the conflict within Iraq’s ruling Shia elite. They will actively create counterparts of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria. Tehran will seek to strengthen its influence in Iraqi Kurdistan through the opposition of M. Barzani, J. Talabani’s organisation and the Goran Party. The probability of the administration of Iraqi Kurdistan to take steps toward succession is starting to decline, due to the inter-factional conflict and the absence of any alternative to the Iraqi route for gas exports. The significance of the Turkish route will fall. The revival of this route is only possible if world oil prices rise.

The situation in Yemen can only change in the event of the death of former President, A. A. Saleh. This will lead to a weakening of the forces opposing the Arab coalition and the Houthis’ loss of control over a significant territory of the country, but it will not affect their ability to hold a large part of the northern region. Aid to them from Iran will remain at the current level. The regeneration of the combat potential of the Islamist party, Al-Islah, is accelerating. Against this background, tensions will arise between the main members of the Arab coalition, the UAE and the KSA, as will the question of interaction between the local Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Islah. So far, the UAE has limited its involvement in the Yemen conflict in a way that it falls within the borders of the former state of South Yemen.

An important element in the operational environment will be the fiasco of the KSA’s idea of creating a pan-Arab force under its aegis (formally under the aegis of the Arab League), and to become an independent regional power. This was conceived of as an attempt to create an alternative to Iran, considering the Kingdom’s mistrust of the USA as a guarantor of security, due to the agreement over the Iranian nuclear programme and the removal of sanctions on Tehran. As the plan has failed, Riyadh is forced to remain under the influence of the USA and to continue to consider Washington as its major military partner.

In the medium term, the Middle East will remain relatively stable compared to the period during the Arab Spring. It would be possible due to the stability of regimes, the weakening of the Muslim Brotherhood and a renaissance in the former ruling elite in Tunisia and Egypt.

These processes will have little impact on the situation in the Muslim regions of Russia. The momentum of development and the fall of world oil prices precludes the possibility of external forces coming to destabilise the situation through the export of jihad. Besides this, there is a real and total absence of conditions which would make violent opposition protests possible. This is not exclusive of the extreme and resonant terrorist acts, such as the destruction of the Russian airliner over the Sinai. The operations of Russian aerospace forces in Syria will hamper the transfer of pockets of armed jihadists to Russia.

The Syrian Catalyst

The entrance of the Russian aerospace forces in Syria dramatically changed the military-political situation in the country. It restored the balance between warring sides and neutralised the deficit in the Syrian government’s manpower and hardware. Air superiority was one of the main reasons why the Syrian army and its allies gained the strategic initiative and went on the offensive in a variety of points on the front line. At the same time, the Russian operation stimulated the US-led international coalition to become more involved in the conflict.

Before the Russian aerospace forces entered the Syrian conflict, the western attitude was one of “active neutrality”. Washington organised a possibility of replacing Assad with the opposition, which is dominated by Islamic radicals. The US did not make any active attempts to influence the situation, neither with regard to the pro-Saudi Al-Nusra Front nor the pro-Qatar ISIS.

Costly attempts to create a secular, armed opposition have failed mainly because, from the start of the Syrian conflict, the White House allowed Turkey, the KSA and Qatar to shape the agenda in this area. The USA did not transform the Free Syrian Army into a structure which could compete with the Islamic State. In the end, the main armed opposition to Assad comprised only Islamists.

The only challenge that the United States has tried to solve in Syria was the problem of a possible ingress of chemical weapons stockpiles in the hands of terrorists, with the prospect of their proliferation across the region. The Pentagon was unable to form a solution to the problem, therefore the Russian initiative on the removal of such weapons was perceived as a positive move by Washington. But this very initiative has removed restrictions on the US’s allies in their efforts to oust Assad.

The main American objective in Syria was to remove the current president without any foresight on how the situation would then develop. Washington had no method of directing the situation and that led to Syria becoming a second Somalia or Libya. The entrance of Russian aerospace forces forced Washington to respond more actively to the situation, where the US has been playing catch-up without a programme of action from the Department of State or the War Party.

Washington had to form this programme on the go, which led to a series of mistakes in policy and propaganda. The weak link in the US’s actions in Syria is the absence of a military force on the ground. This point affects them in a negative way. Washington is looking for a way to create such a force, taking into account the interests of Ankara and Riyadh, recently agreeing to US units participating in ground operations. Betting on the Syrian Kurds brings the limits of what they are willing to fight and ties operations to their area of traditional residence.

Participation of Kurdish troops in an attack on an indigenously Arab city of the type of Raqqa, would cause outrage in Ankara and among the Arab population, regardless of their confession. At present, the US has no alternative tool with which to influence the situation besides its Kurdish resource. This suggests that logistics and training of Kurdish units by Americans will decrease with the capture of Raqqa and Manuja.

This goal is a high priority for the White House for PR purposes, as it will be used to maintain the image of the US being the main power and conqueror of ISIS, taking into account the forthcoming US presidential election. As this goal approaches realisation, the US military presence in Syria will begin to decline. It will be limited to training the Arab segment of the democratic forces of Syria. The Americans will not take action in the direction of Aleppo and Idlib. Given the impending departure of the Obama administration, they will not develop a plan of action in Syria.

With the foreseeable defeat of ISIS infrastructure in Syria, the USA will focus on retaining a centre of loyalty for Sunnis and on the accumulation of their collective discontent in the country. Today, this is the role of the pro-Saudi Al-Nusra Front. In the event of the defeat of ISIS, it will monopolise the armed opposition.

During a recent visit to the United States, the heir of the Crown Prince of the KSA and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, outlined the main points of co-operation in this direction. Al-Nusra should dissolve into the renewed armed opposition. The main role in it will be played by groups which are not included in the list of terrorist organisations, allowing them to be provided with material-technological support. This means Ahrar Al-Sham will become the leading public force in the new Alliance, providing cover for El-Nusra. The Alliance is expected to contain opposition groups, which America and Britain have been training in Jordan.

The US will provide Alliance support for arms and diplomatic lines. The main goal for the medium term is the organisation of an armistice in Syria through the Geneva format and other tools, with the aim of obtaining the time needed for the formation and strengthening of the position of the bloc. In this case, the main task of Washington remains the overthrow of the Assad regime without considering the probable negative effects of this move, simply due to its alliance with Moscow.

A belief prevails in the US State Department and in the White House that a new opposition alliance in Syria will be the force that will be able to control the situation after the departure of Assad. This scheme completely satisfies Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Americans believe the correct scheme of actions in the Syrian conflict is creating a ‘ruling’ Islamist opposition as an alternative to the current regime. The role of Ankara and Riyadh’s logistical and military support for the Islamists will increase.

The scheme is risky in that legally, the Americans occupy the position of outside observer in Syria. Their ability to influence the leadership of this Alliance, which will only listen to advice from Ankara and Riyadh, is limited.

The USA has not taken into account the differences in the approaches between Ankara, Doha and Riyadh on the future primacy of certain forces in a new Alliance, and in Syria in general in a post-Assad Syria. From Ankara and Doha’s point of view, it should be the Muslim Brotherhood; according to the KSA, it should be the leaders of the Salafi persuasion. While there is agreement over this collaboration, the parties have also taken into account the threatened situation of the opposition on the front. But while the Alliance is consolidating, in the event of its success, differences will increase. If Assad falls, a period of division will arise for the opposition, akin to a repetition of the Libyan scenario. Due to its geographic position, the advantage will be on the side of those who are pro-Turkish, while financial support for them from Doha will increase.

Thus, the viability of the regime in Damascus will be determined by the support of Moscow, including the involvement of its aerospace forces. Moscow will not allow the opposition to achieve an advantage on the fronts or develop a general offensive in Damascus, regardless of the degree of intensification of logistical support from its sponsors. Iran may stabilise the situation in Syria without Russian support, only through a massive military intervention in case there is danger of the fall of Damascus, which is undesirable to Tehran.

The participation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia in their military-technical supply to the opposition groups under their control will grow. Given that ISIS will fragment if Raqqa, Tabka or Manuja are taken, the monopoly on power in the Sunni resistance will fall to Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham, which are controlled by Ankara. To break the US strategy, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may go on the active offensive toward Aleppo-Idlib, without considering diplomatic pressure from the US. In this case, the capture of Raqqa would only be important as a propaganda success. To disrupt the communications systems of ISIS’s troops, it is enough to unblock Tabqa and Deir Ez-Zor. The fate of the Syrian campaign will be decided in Aleppo.

Even local successes in this area encourage Sunni groups to form a truce with Damascus. This process is the only possible form of freezing the crisis in order to move to an internal Syrian dialogue on the architecture of separation of powers between different religions. It is necessary to consider that with Assad’s departure, the situation in the country will not change and the sentiments in the Sunni and Shiite communities will not be affected.

Surrender or Wait for the Shiites

The defeat of IS infrastructure in Syria will affect the situation in Iraq. The capture of the major Islamist centres and the fragmentation of IS units will complicate its position in Iraq. Prime Minister, Al-Abadi, will probably be able to overcome the political crisis and to reach a compromise with one of the main opponents within the Shia elite, the leader of the Army of the Mahdi, M. Al-Sadr. This will allow concentration on the continued fight with ISIS, particularly in Mosul. Simultaneously, there will be a process of ‘national reconciliation’, which will be implemented informally. This can be seen in the examples of the capture of Ramadi and Fallujah. They follow this scheme: the army blockades the city and enters into negotiations with local Sunni elite about the terms of surrender. If consultations are not successful, the ‘Shiite factor’ is used as blackmail. Parts of the Shiite militia are transferred to the besieged city.

The prospect of the entrance of Shiites in Sunni-populated areas is sufficient to reach a compromise. Government forces are given the right to raise the national flag on the main administrative building, leave a small garrison (usually the police) and representatives of the central government. All administrative and social policy remains in the hands of local Sunnis. The IS units are shying away from fights and are dissolved into the local population. The same tactics will be applied to Mosul, the capture of which is the main objective of Baghdad and Washington. The participation of the Kurds is limited to the blockade of the city’s perimeter. Kurds will not participate in assault and street fighting.

Meanwhile, ISIS will move towards guerilla warfare, the intensification of which will depend on the dynamics of incorporation of the Sunni elite in the local and central government. The fundamental question is the access of the Sunnis to profits from oil exports and in providing them with local economic and social autonomy. This will lead to a drop in foreign fighters in Iraq.
The capture of Mosul will involve a massive return of foreign supporters of ISIS to their homelands, due to falling revenues and the desire of the Sunni elite to fit into the new realities. Attempts by the KSA to gain a foothold in the Sunni areas of Iraq, using Salafi organisations, will not achieve success. There will probably be a local conflict between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds for control over Kirkuk, which neither Baghdad nor the leaders of the major faiths, recognise as part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iran’s influence in Iraq will increase due to the strengthening of the Shiite militias and control over the intelligence apparatus. Tehran will build influence in Iraq through opposition figures and Barzani’s parties and groups. In addition to the economic interests associated with the prospect of a pipeline from Iraq to Iran, the United States will actively restrain the construction of a regular army in Iraq, an effort the Pentagon started in the middle of last year to slow down the growth of Iranian influence.

The overall picture in Iraq will depend on the timing of the destruction of the ISIS infrastructure in Syria and taking control of the main centres of the group such as Raqqa and Mensija, the liberation of the province of Deir Ez-Zor, the liberation of Mosul and the readiness of Baghdad to incorporate the Sunni community into government by presenting it with social and administrative autonomy. Explosive war with the risk of resonant terror acts will continue with a momentum, which will depend on the implementation of these conditions.

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George Washington

…how old is this article? Half of the “predictions” made here have already been proven wrong.

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