For almost a century, the Middle East has been defined by the nation-states that emerged following the Allied victory in World War I and the end of the colonial era.
Since then, strategic analyses of the region have concentrated on the relations between these states, and diplomatic efforts have generally attempted to maintain their stability and the integrity of their borders. As a result, the current map of the Middle East has remained largely unchanged over more than nine decades.
But this is no longer the case. The old maps no longer reflect the reality on the ground, and the region is now defined not by rivalry between nation-states, but by sectarian divisions that are spilling across the old borders and rendering them irrelevant. Today, there is a single sectarian war underway across the Middle East, one that threatens to engulf the entire region.
This war has a number of fronts, some more intense and active than others, but it is everywhere defined by sectarian conflict, especially the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. It is most intense in the area encompassing the current states of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; but has also spread further afield—to Bahrain, northern Yemen, and to some degree Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia.
The core power on the Shia side is the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and founding patron of Hezbollah, which until 9/11 held had killed more Americans than any terror group in the world. The Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Maliki government and assorted Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are all allies or proxies of the Islamic Republic, which is capable of rendering substantial assistance to its friends through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a powerful military and economic force that possesses substantial expertise and experience in building proxy organizations and engaging in political and paramilitary warfare.
On the Sunni side, the dominant power is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which after 9/11 has been wary of Tehran, but also has struggled against the Islamists of Al Qaeda. Its allies include various groups among the Syrian rebels, the March 14 movement in Lebanon, the military regime in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, and sometimes Turkey. The Saudis, however, are at something of a disadvantage. They possess no parallel to the IRGC, and have problematic relations with the extreme Sunni jihadists of al-Qaeda, who have played a prominent role in the fighting on all three major fronts.
How did this situation come about? Is there evidence of a clear linkage between the various forces on the respective sides? Why is this conflict so extreme in certain countries—like Syria and Iraq—where it appears to be leading to the breakup of these states? How dangerous are these changes for the West?
Focusing on the areas of most intense conflict—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—can help us answer these questions.
This war is a result of the confluence of a number of circumstances. First, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are all home to a host of different sectarian and ethnic communities. The stark divisions that exist in these societies have never been resolved. In Syria and Iraq, they were suppressed for decades by brutal dictatorial regimes. The Assad regime in Syria and Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq were family dictatorships based on minority sectarian communities—the Alawis in Syria and the Arab Sunnis in Iraq—while claiming to rule in the name of pan-Arab nationalism. In service of this ideology, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes ruthlessly put down ethnic and sectarian separatism in all its forms; in particular, Shia Islamism in Iraq, Sunni Islamism in Syria, and the Kurdish national movement in both countries. All were treated without mercy.
Lebanon, by contrast, is a far weaker state, which was ruled by a power-sharing arrangement between ethnic and religious groups that collapsed into civil war in 1975. The issues underlying that war were never resolved; instead, between 1990 and 2005 the Syrian army presence in Lebanon ended all discussion of basic issues of national identity.
Over the last decade, the once ironclad structures of dictatorship and suppression that kept ethnic and sectarian tensions from erupting have weakened or disappeared. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq destroyed the Saddam Hussein regime. A sectarian Shia government, based on the Shia Arab majority and conditionally accepted by the Kurds, took its place. In Syria, a brutal civil war has severely curtailed the power of the Assad regime, which now rules only about 40 percent of the country’s territory. The Sunni Arab majority and the Kurdish minority have carved out autonomous sectarian enclaves in the 60 percent that remains.
Western hopes that a non-sectarian identity would take hold in the areas formerly ruled by Saddam and the Assads have proved persistent but illusory. Remarks about Iraq made by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in 2004 sum up these hopes and the tendency to self-delusion that often accompanies them. “What has been impressive to me so far,” Rice said, is that Iraqis—whether Kurds or Shia or Sunni or the many other ethnic groups in Iraq—have demonstrated that they really want to live as one in a unified Iraq…. I think particularly the Kurds have shown a propensity to want to bridge differences that were historic differences in many ways that were fueled by Saddam Hussein and his regime… What I have found interesting and I think important is the degree to which the leaders of the Shia and Kurdish and Sunni communities have continually expressed their desires to live in a unified Iraq.
This faith is shared by the Obama Administration, and as a result, it has continued to support the Shia-dominated government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It sees Maliki’s opposition to Sunni insurgents in western Anbar province as an elected government’s opposition to extremist rebels. This fails to take into account the sectarian nature of the Maliki government itself and the discriminatory policies he has pursued against the Sunnis of western Iraq.
The reemergence of sectarian conflict so evident in Iraq has also emerged in Syria and is, in turn, spilling over into neighboring Lebanon. Lebanon was first drawn into the conflict as a result of the significant and highly effective intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime by Iran’s Lebanon-based terrorist army, Hezbollah. This quickly led to retaliation against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon by elements among Syria’s Sunni rebels. Supporters of the Sunni rebels have succeeded in attacking Hezbollah’s Dahiyeh compound in south Beirut five times. The bombing on January 2 was carried out by a young Lebanese member of an organization called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) named Qutaiba Muhammad al-Satem; ISIS are Islamic extremists who have been operating as a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.
While Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria and the subsequent Sunni reaction is partially the result of the divided nature of Lebanon and Syria and their unresolved questions of national identity, larger regional conflicts, also of a sectarian nature, are a driving force behind the violence.
Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war came not as a result of automatic sentiments of solidarity, but because Hezbollah forms part of a regional alliance headed by Iran, to which the Assad regime also belongs. When Assad found himself in trouble, Hezbollah was mobilized to assist him. On the opposing side, the Syrian rebels have benefited from the support and patronage of Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, and other states along the Arabian peninsula, including the United Arab Emirates.
This rivalry is long standing and not primarily rooted in theological differences. It is about power. Iran is controlled by a revolutionary regime whose goal is to become the hegemonic force in the Middle East. Although the Iranians certainly regard the Saudis as an enemy and as unfit custodians of Islam’s most holy sites, the Tehran’s main goal is to assert control over Arabian Gulf energy supplies, replacing the U.S. as guarantor of resources upon which world is dependent. Tehran understands that the real source of power in the region is the Gulf itself, with its enormous reserves of oil and natural gas that are essential to the global economy. To achieve its goals, Iran must tempt or coerce the Gulf monarchies away from U.S. protection and toward an alliance with Tehran, and ironically, American weakness in the face of Tehran’s nuclear pursuit makes that all the more possible.
Riyadh has emerged as the principle opponent to Iran’s regional ambitions, mainly because the former guarantor of the current regional order, the United States, has chosen to leave the field. Until 2011, the Middle East appeared to be locked into a kind of cold war, in which the Iranians, along with their allies and proxies, sought to overturn the U.S.-dominated regional order, which was based on U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Events over the last five years, however, have created the impression that the U.S. no longer wishes to play this role: America failed to back its longtime Egyptian ally, Hosni Mubarak, when he faced domestic unrest in early 2011. It failed to support the rebel forces fighting the Iran-backed Assad regime. And it failed to back Bahrain against an Iran-supported uprising in the same year. Now, the U.S. appears to be seeking a general rapprochement with Iran.
As a result of all this, Saudi Arabia has begun to take a far more active role in the region. Riyadh and its Gulf allies have certainly helped to finance and stabilize Egypt after the military removed Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government from power. It began to take a leading role in supporting the Syrian rebels. It has well-documented relations with the anti-Syrian March 14 movement in Lebanon. In December 2013, the Saudis pledged $3 billion to the official Lebanese army. They also support anti-Maliki elements in Iraq. In addition, they are seeking to create an alliance among the other Gulf states in order to oppose Iranian ambitions, with some success.
This increasingly violent rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, intensified by American withdrawal from the region, has helped turn a conflict that was once cold into an increasingly hot cross-border sectarian war.
There is considerable evidence of links between Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and their respective allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, on the other.
On the Iranian side, Tehran no longer makes any serious attempt to deny the enormous assistance they have given the Assad regime in Syria. Indeed, the Iranians have effectively mobilized all their available regional assets in order to preserve it. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, Qassem Suleimani, went to Syria himself in order to coordinate these efforts. Perhaps most notably, in mid-2012 the Iranians began training a new light infantry force for Assad. Called the National Defense Force, it was necessary because Assad was unable to use much of his own army, which consisted of Sunni conscripts whose loyalty was unreliable. Iran has even sent its own IRGC fighters to fight in Syria; a fact revealed by footage taken by an Iranian cameraman who was later killed by the rebels, the testimony of Syrian defectors, and the capture of a number of IRGC men in August 2012.
In April 2013, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was summoned to Iran and instructed to deploy his own fighters in Syria. Up to 10,000 of them are now on the ground in Syria at any given time, and they played a crucial role in retaking the strategic town of Qusayr in August 2013. Hezbollah fighters are also taking a prominent role in the battle for the Qalamun area near the Lebanese border, as well as the fighting around Damascus.
Iranian financial donations have also been vital in keeping the regime alive. In January 2013, Iran announced a “credit facility” agreement with Syria that extended a $1 billion line of credit to Assad. Later the same year, an additional credit line of $3.6 billion was announced.
Iraq has also played a vital role in supporting Assad, mainly by allowing Iran to use Iraqi territory and airspace to transfer weapons to Syrian forces. At first glance, this appears to be a strange policy. Relations between Iraq and Syria prior to the civil war were not good, with Maliki openly accusing Assad of supporting Sunni insurgents. But this has now changed. Indeed, Maliki has openly supported Assad since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. This reflects his increasing closeness to Iran, which helped ensure Maliki’s emergence as prime minister after the 2010 elections and pressured Assad to support him as well. Relations between Iraq, Iran, and Syria have only improved since.
In addition to government support, Iraqi Shia militias are now fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad. The Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, Ktaeb Hezbollah, and the Ahl al-Haq group all have forces in Syria. They are playing an important role, given that one of Assad’s major weaknesses is his lack of reliably loyal soldiers. The eruption of violence in Iraq’s western Anbar province has further cemented this alliance, since the insurgency is a direct result of advances made by Sunni jihadis in Syria.
As a result of all this, the Iranian-led side of the regional conflict has emerged as a tightly organized alliance, capable of acting in a coordinated way, pooling its resources for a common goal, and fighting effectively from western Iraq all the way to the Mediterranean.
The Sunni side of the conflict is more chaotic and disjointed. Saudi Arabia is its main financier, but it lacks an equivalent to the Qods force and the IRGC, who are world leaders in subversion and irregular warfare.
Only the most extreme jihadi elements appear capable of clear coordination across borders. For example, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as its name suggests, is active in both countries and controls a contiguous area stretching from the western Anbar province in Iraq to the eastern Raqqa province in Syria. ISIS regards itself as a franchise of al-Qaeda, although it does not take orders directly from the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. Another al-Qaeda group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is active in Syria. In Lebanon, a third branch of al-Qaeda, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, has played a role in the attacks on Hezbollah. In addition, both the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are active in Lebanon.
But there are also less extreme groups opposing the Syrian-Iranian axis. Saudi Arabia has backed the March 14 movement, which is the main Sunni opposition party in Lebanon, as well as providing financial support to the Lebanese army. In Syria, the Saudis have fostered the Islamic Front, an alliance of eight Islamist groups unconnected to al-Qaeda. It includes some of the strongest rebel brigades, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Islam, and Liwa al-Tawhid. It is now emerging as the key bloc among the rebels. The Saudis also dominate the Syrian opposition in exile, with Ahmed Jarba, who has close links to Riyadh, recently reelected chairman of the Syrian National Coalition.
There are no indications that the Saudis are backing Sunni insurgents in Iraq, but the larger Sunni community is certainly looking to Riyadh for help. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the current Iraqi government are very bad. The border between the two countries is closed except during the Hajj pilgrimage, there is no Saudi embassy in Baghdad, and commercial relations are kept at a minimum. Some of the Sunni tribes in western Anbar have close links to the Saudis. While they are hostile to al-Qaeda, they are also opposed to the Maliki government, which they regard as a sectarian Shia regime.
There is a third element to this regional conflict that is something of a wild card: The Kurds. A non-Arab people who have long sought an independent state, the Kurds have succeeded in creating a flourishing autonomous zone in northern Iraq that enjoys most of the elements of de facto sovereignty. Since July 2012, another Kurdish autonomous zone has been established in northeast Syria. These two areas occupy a contiguous land mass, but are not politically united. The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, while the autonomous zone in northeast Syria is controlled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is the Syrian branch of the Turkish-based leftist PKK movement.
These movements are rivals, and each sees itself as the appropriate leader of the Kurds. But while there is tension between them, each appears to be securely in control of its respective areas. The Kurds do not enjoy the support of any state in the region, and both the Iranians and the Saudis regard Kurdish national aspirations with suspicion. Nonetheless, the Kurds have managed to accumulate sufficient organizational and military strength to ensure the survival of their self-governing enclaves.
All these factors indicate that two rival alliances are clashing for hegemony over the region. There are myriad practical links between the various combatants, and their activities have long since spilled across the borders of the various states involved in the fighting; as indicated by the presence of Iranian fighters, ISIS, and Hezbollah in Syria; Syrian rebels in Lebanon; and many other examples. Iran is the leader of one side, Saudi Arabia is the main backer of the other, while the Kurds are concerned with maintaining their areas of control and are trying to stay out of the conflict.
The most significant result of this is that the continued existence of Syria and Iraq as unified states is now in question. Practically speaking, Syria has already split into three areas, each controlled by one of the three elements listed above. Iraq has also effectively split into Kurdish and Arab zones, with Sunni and Shia groups fighting over the latter.
In many ways, Lebanon ceased to function as a unified state some time ago; since Hezbollah essentially functions as a de facto mini-state of its own. The Lebanese Sunnis lack a military tradition and have proved helpless in the face of Iran’s support for Hezbollah. But now, the emergence of the Syrian rebels and the growing popularity of Islamism among the Sunni underclass may be altering this balance. This appears to be borne out by the recent surge in Sunni violence against Hezbollah, which is the result of an attempt by Syrian jihadis and other rebels—in concert with their local allies—to bring the war to Lebanon.
Taken together, this indicates that a massive paradigm shift is underway in much of the Middle East. The eclipse of Arab nationalist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria, the historical failure to develop a unified national identity in these states, their mixed ethnic and sectarian makeup, and the U.S.’s withdrawal from its dominant position in the region—with the resulting emergence of a Saudi-Iranian rivalry—have all combined to produce an extraordinary result: A region-wide sectarian war is now taking place in the areas still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
For the West, as in the region itself, this has very serious implications. Dealing with it effectively will required an equally massive paradigm shift in strategic thinking on the Middle East, one that is capable of dispensing with previous illusions and admitting that sovereign borders once regarded as sacrosanct are swiftly becoming meaningless.
There are new borders taking shape, defined by sectarian divisions that the West ignores at its peril. Despite fantasies of withdrawing from the region, the security of global energy supplies and the maintenance of regional stability are still essential to Western interests. The West has as large a stake in the outcome of this sectarian conflict as the regional players involved. If it cannot adapt to the new Middle East that is swiftly taking shape, it will find itself on the losing side.
Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’
On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.
Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.
As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.
The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year, to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.
In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.
Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.
In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.
In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.
The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.
The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.
Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.
In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.
The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.
Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.
Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.
It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.
Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.
In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.
It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.
According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.
The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.
Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.
According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
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