The Middle East has been, and will continue to be, the toughest neighbourhood on the planet. It is a region marred by turmoil, conflict and displacements, intervened by periods of lull and wholesale repression. These patterns are not entirely chaotic or random. They are ‘orderly’, structured and inextricably linked to changes in global power dynamics. They change and evolve with the emergence or collapse of global drivers, superpowers.
The demise of the Ottoman Empire triggered a seismic restructuring of the Middle East Order which had been in place for centuries. The British and French empires redrew the map of the Middle East, carving up their spheres of influence. The collapse of the Russian empire, the subsequent rise of the Soviet Union, and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany also affected the structure of power in the region. The post-WWII division between East and West throughout the Cold War, further consolidated these power structures, making them immune to coups d’états or revolutions.
New drivers in the region
While the collapse of the Soviet Union paved the way for a wave of democratisation in Eastern Europe, the Middle East was more resilient. The Middle East Order would have to wait until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ for its own wave of change to be felt. This led to long-standing hegemonic regimes being overthrown at unprecedented speed. These triggered a transitional period between the Middle East’s old established order and whatever may be next; all we know is that the ‘Arab Spring’ and its impact is far from over.
Meanwhile, the void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union could have been filled by the only remaining global superpower, the US, but was instead filled by regional powers, such as Iran, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the increasingly sophisticated radical groups who grew increasingly assertive. Local non-state actors seized these new opportunities to shape the future of the Middle East. However, the most significant shift was caused by the growth of extremist groups utilising terror on the global stage to reshape regional power and the global strategic narrative.
The Middle East remains in a state of flux as it undergoes an immense transition. What is certain is that before a new Middle East Order is revealed, there will be many more dangerous twists and turns. The question that naturally arises is, can this process be left to evolve naturally, or should there be intervention designed to prevent the descent into further chaos?
The US failure
After 2003, Iraq became the focal point of the Middle East’s power shift, led by the vision and design of US neoconservatives. Their recipe for achieving their counter-terrorism, global stability and national security goals was ‘the democratisation’ of the Arab World. However, regional and local powers did not share this vision. They rejected the project of democratisation, aiming to shape the order according to their own national security interests.
US plans derailed as regional powers funded and fuelled radicalisation across the Middle East and North Africa. The US accepted defeat in Iraq, withdrew its forces and adopted a hands-off approach to the Middle East. Indeed after nearly a decade of conflict, western countries could be seen to be suffering from ‘Iraq fatigue’. As the US pivoted their foreign policy towards Asia, they left the ‘Arab Spring’ to gather momentum on its own, propelling Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and many more countries into disarray. While built on popular unrest, the conflicts that followed often tore the fragile social fabric of these countries apart. In some cases, this irreversible damage has created fertile ground for the growth of extremist organisations.
Iran’s empire building
Iran has, over the years, grown to overwhelm many of the states in the neighbourhood. It has deprived Iraq and Syria of their decision-making powers, transforming them into proxy regimes in an attempt to further Iranian national security interests. Iran’s strategic alliances with the Assad regime in Syria and Lebanon’s Hizbollah solidified the Shia crescent. They also actively back Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen and the Shia organisations in Bahrain. Furthermore, Iran’s influence extends to numerous non-state actors who are in themselves drivers of change on the ground, such as the Shia militia groups in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia: worries & disappointments
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has long been concerned about Iran’s expansive role in the Middle East and has attempted to limit their expanding sphere of influence. This included attempts to empower Iraq’s Sunnis against the pro-Iranian Shia rulers of Iraq, while pushing for regime change in Syria and protecting the rulers of Yemen and Bahrain. The Saudis’ were very disappointed to subsequently learn that the US did not share these priorities. They were even more disappointed when the US-Iran deal did not involve agreement over the region’s conflicts and Iran’s expansionism. They have been intensifying their active engagement in the regional wars, and are now braced for a period of increased tension with Iran. As a result, they have been increasingly inclined to coalesce with Turkey and Egypt in an attempt to confront Iran.
Turkey’s zero sum game with neighbours
Turkey has recently become more interventionist, abandoning its policy of ‘zero-problems with neighbours’ as well as its internal peace-process with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). While keeping a stable and financially rewarding relationship with Iran, it has stood firm against Iran’s proxies. In Iraq, Turkey supported Sunni Arabs against pro-Iranian Shias. In Syria, it went too deep too fast with the aim of removing the Bashar Assad regime. In the process, Turkey supported Free Syrian Army factions and tolerated the growth of radical groups, including Al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS).
Thus, while the Middle East is descending into further turmoil, the US and other western powers have failed to provide a clear vision or overall strategy to stabilise the Middle East and react to what is a global security threat. Their measures have been half-hearted and largely reactive.
United States, leading from behind or leaving it behind
The current US administration has been determined to lead from behind, and not to get too closely involved again in the Middle East. US policy in Syria has been one of trying to make it appear as if they are active, while actively doing very little. The region has become too complex and the local leaders too ill-focused for international powers to be able to provide a clear strategy.
The US have tolerated Iran’s expansion in the region, and the counter-productive policies of the Saudis in Iraq and Syria. They have tolerated Turkey’s policies towards the Islamic State, and its latest military escalation against the PKK. Many US insiders believe this current administration is unlikely to do more than it has done so far to intervene in, or shape the future of, the Middle East. This administration has expended all of its political capital in pushing through the Iranian deal; they will not want to do anything to affect that legacy. In the US, all eyes are now on future presidential candidates to see if they would want to be more active in the region.
European powers: lead or be led
Europe, on the other hand, has not yet developed the mechanisms necessary to form a common foreign policy or the capacity to take the leadership in solving crises around the globe. The main European powers, including Germany, France and the United Kingdom, know more about the Middle East and are most affected by the turmoil. They have shown concern about the region’s descent into chaos, but are philosophical about the future of the Middle East and have followed the US lead in every action. The current Middle East crisis is a unique opportunity for the Europeans to offer leadership and help stabilise their neighbours.
There is an over-reliance on US leadership on the global stage while many EU member states have been less than active from a foreign policy perspective. Turning from a national foreign policy to a European one is difficult for any member state. While the foreign policy of member states may align they are often at odds. In the case of the Libyan revolution, member states took a lead role. The failure in Libya was due to a lack of willingness to be drawn into post-conflict stabilisation. In other areas of the Middle East, such as Syria, member states have often had conflicting policies and strategies, leading to a level of reluctance to act.
The European Neighbourhood Policy has proven to be ineffective in stabilising surrounding regions. However, it is clear that there is an opportunity for European actors to play a greater role in shaping a new Middle East order. While European policy towards the Middle East remains apparently directionless, the need for an effective foreign policy becomes exigent.
This article was originally published on 13 September 2015, in Open Democracy.