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Playing with Fire: Israel and its problematic friends solidify ties

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Remarks at United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore, 3 October 2017

There are no nice guys in the Middle East, a region that is in the sixth year of transition. It’s a transition that is likely to take up to a quarter of a century. It’s a transition that is being exacerbated by states that are battling either one another for regional hegemony or to maintain an unsustainable status quo or to shape the region in their mould. There are no good or bad guys in this battle, at best there are bad and worse ones.

That is the playing field on which long existing relations between Israel and status quo powers, primarily in the Gulf, as well as in Jordan and Egypt, have grown far closer and more overt. Closer relations are primarily based on perceived common interests in stymying Iran as well as political change. It’s an alliance in emergence, particularly with the Gulf, that irrespective whether it results in formal diplomatic relations as already is the case with Egypt and Jordan or may soon occur with Bahrain, is likely to be fragile, not because the parties view it that way, but because far-reaching change on the Arab side is inevitable.

The parameters and dynamics of what the Middle East is experiencing and the risks Israel runs with the alliances it is cementing centre on five fundamental developments or disputes:

  • The impact of the 2011 popular Arab revolts
  • The Gulf crisis
  • The Saudi-Iranian rivalry
  • Transition in the Gulf
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The roll back of the 2011 popular revolts by a UAE-Saudi led counterrevolution has prompted many to write off the chance for democratic change in the Middle East and to refer to the uprisings as the Arab winter. That may prove to be a short-lived analysis. For one, it’s a mistake to see the revolts as a quest for Western-style democracy. Rather, they were a quest for dignity, greater freedoms and liberation from corrupt, nepotistic regimes that, with few exceptions, had failed to deliver in terms of public goods and services. Those revolts may or may not have succeeded in the longer term but ultimately, they were prematurely defeated by domestic status quo forces backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whether it is the 2013 military coup in Egypt, Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen, or UAE and Egyptian backing of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. To be clear, Qatar was a player in this too.

The legacy of the revolts is far greater than simply defeat or failure. It has changed mentality and attitudes. The quest for change is alive and kicking. That is not to say that masses of people are about to take to the streets again – despite recent months long protests in the Rif in northern Morocco. Events in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen may by and large have for now chilled the quest for revolutionary change. So has severe repression across the Middle East. The desire for change is however alive and kicking in social media.

It is also alive in kicking in the radicalization of Arab youth, who make up the bulk of jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic States is on the verge of territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, but that only means that political violence will no longer have a central address; it will be more decentralised, more amorphous, more spread out, and probably more lethal. Political violence has been a fixture of human history, but blunting its current phase will take a lot more than military might and law enforcement. It will take economic and social policies as well as forms of governance that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

Which leads to the third legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts: the future of Middle Eastern nation states as they were known until now.  Neither Iraq nor Syria will return as nation states in the borders prior to 2011 in Syria or 2003 in Iraq when the United States invaded and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth, whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia. It parallels the efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Syria, or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own. It also parallels the dispute in the Gulf between Qatar and various other Gulf states.

Most conflicts in the Middle East have a pot blames the kettle quality, but no one dispute more so than that between Qatar and a UAE-Saudi-led alliance of financially and politically dependent states. At the heart of the crisis are four issues: the ability of small states to chart their own, independent course; diametrically opposed perceptions of national security threats; fundamentally different strategies for regime survival; and radically differing definitions of what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.

Also at the heart of both the Gulf crisis and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry are opposing approaches to political or activist forms of Islam. We can go in question and answers into greater detail about the Gulf crisis. Qatar has the naïve belief that it can support political change anywhere in the Middle East while at the same time ringfencing itself as well as other Gulf states from the fallout. Qatari support as well as its soft power strategy has meant that it has maintained contact and/or supported a host of militant groups, in some cases with the approval of the United States, as well as Islamists. It was a policy that clashed with that of the UAE, first and foremost, which sees any form of political Islam as a threat and under the influence of the UAE with Saudi Arabia’s evolving threat perception.

Fact of the matter is that all the Gulf states have maintained and/or supported militants and Islamists; no country more so than Saudi Arabia, not only in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in a covert war for the past 40 years. It is a war that explains much of Iranian actions today. Yet, Saudi Arabia is fighting an uphill battle. Its future in the Middle East is that of a second fiddle state. There are three major powers in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, and Israel, in certain regards. Turkey, Iran and, Egypt have what Saudi Arabia does not: large populations, huge domestic markets, industrial bases, highly educated populations, and deep-seated identities grounded in histories of empire. Iran, moreover, has resources. Saudi Arabia has oil and Mecca, not enough to compete. Saudi Arabia is a regional power because of past containment policies towards Iran. Once Iran is unfettered, it will unlikely be able to compete for long.

A major aspect of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is the ideological and religious battle that Saudi Arabia has waged for the past four decades, the fallout of which is being felt across the globe. Saudi Arabia has invested an estimated $100 billion to promote Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. To be clear, the bulk of that money did not go to militants, it went to religious, cultural and educational facilities that Saudi Arabia largely did not micro-manage or control. There are only a handful of countries where the Saudis funded violence: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. Also to be clear, ultra-conservatism does not by definition breed militancy but it does create an enabling environment in conjunction with other factors, first and foremost lack of social and economic opportunity.

The blowback of ultra-conservatism is felt in the kingdom as is evident in the economic and social transition Gulf states are embarking on. To put the transition in perspective, keep in mind that every person born in the Gulf today is likely to witness the end of oil in his or her lifetime. Economic streamlining and diversification was long overdue but was made unavoidable by the drop in oil prices sparked by Saudi oil policy that focussed on market share rather than price.

Economic reform and limited social change but no political liberalization amounts to ruling families unilaterally rewriting social contracts by rolling back the cradle-to-grave-welfare state. The reforms cater to aspirations of significant segments of the youth who constitute the majority of the region’s citizenry. But they also go against the grain of vested interests and deep-seated ultra-conservatism. With few exceptions, there is little indication that the reform process is being well-managed, certainly not in terms of the gap between expectations and delivery. With other words, the jury on the reform process is still out. Moreover, nowhere in the Gulf is the legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts potentially more potent than in Saudi Arabia given its size and repressed diversity in terms of popular aspirations. It goes without saying, that what happens in the kingdom would ripple across the Gulf.

The short-term silver lining of events in the Middle East may be developments in Palestine with the reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank as a result of engineering by the UAE and Egypt. It will no doubt bring relief to Gaza which has effectively been blockaded by both Egypt and Israel. The decisive factor however will be the ability of the government to provide jobs and services, the outcome of elections and how Hamas fares in those polls,

For sure, in theory the deal removes a major obstacle to peace talks: the division among the Palestinians themselves. Yet, fact of the matter is, even if a peace can be negotiated, it may not be worth the paper it is written on without Hamas being part of it. The good news is that the United States and Israel have been muted in their response to the reconciliation. Nonetheless, fundamental differences between Hamas and the Palestine Authority have not been resolved, including the terms of any peace talks and a unified military command.

The bottom line of all of this is that short-term, opportunistic policies will not provide solutions unless they lead to a tackling of fundamental problems. Without that, they could exacerbate situations, meaning that ultimately the threats and problems mushroom rather than shrink. If that happens, Israel’s alliance with Gulf could shift from an asset to a liability.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Prospects of normalization grim in Libya

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Analysts say that Libya is one of the most important crisis to watch for in 2020 because of the involvement of Russia and Turkey. More importantly, the plight of the Libyans after almost 10 years of civil war cannot be ignored.

Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance recently said in an interview that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA increasing the possibility of Russia and NATO locking horns.

Eight years after Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi eliminated his country’s weapons of mass destruction the colonel found himself on the wrong side of the gun, when he was overthrown and killed in 2011 submerging the country in a civil war.

NATO members led by Britain and France supported the so-called revolution by airstrikes – then watched as the country sank into chaos. Barrack Obama said leaving Libya without a plan after Gaddafi was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency.

There are fears that the global Covid-19 pandemic could devastate the war-torn Libya, where a decade long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.

Today the country is divided into two factions backed by foreign powers struggling to put the country together.

On the one side, there is the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj in Tripoli supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy. Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries.

Tripoli has been under siege by Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Khalifa Haftar, who started his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. The offensive was launched while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Tripoli to prepare for a peace conference.

Unsuccessful in taking Tripoli, Haftar has laid a siege on the capital city for the last four months.

The 76-year-old Libyan-born commander Haftar is supported by Russia, Egypt, France, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Israel. Russia has sent mercenaries.

The Wall Street reported that prior to his April offensive on Tripoli, Haftar was in Riyadh where Saudis gave him tens of millions of dollars. 

In his dominion, Haftar is known as “the marshal”, and is the military ruler of eastern Libya, with Benghazi as his stronghold. He has promised to build a stable, democratic, and secular Libya but the regions in his control are without any law and order and corruption abounds.

There were several summits by international community to put an end to the Libyan strife before Covid-19 pandemic sidelined the Libyan crisis.

The last summit was called the Berlin Conference was held on January 19. Haftar and al-Sarraj didn’t even meet face to face and the summit failed to yield results.

China has remained neutral in this conflict. Under the Gaddafi regime, China engaged in various infrastructure activities with 35,000 Chinese laborers working across 50 projects, ranging from residential and railway construction to telecommunications and hydropower ventures. The year leading to Gaddafi’s overthrow, Libya was providing three percent of China’s crude oil supply, constituting roughly 150,000 barrels a day. All of China’s top state oil firms – CNPC, Sinopec Group, and CNOOC – had had standing infrastructure projects in Libya.

In the outbreak of protests in 2011, China sought to preserve economic ties with Libya and rejected the NATO-led military intervention. China abstained at the UN Security Council vote to authorize military intervention.

In late 2015, the GNA emerged as the new political authority, the product of negotiations brokered by the United Nations and backed by China.

Although many Chinese projects were suspended in Libya and bilateral trade decreased by 57 percent, China’s neutrality paved the way for Beijing to stand in good stead with GNA for years to come.

Immigrants crisis

Home to an estimated 654,000 migrants – more than 48,000 of them registered asylum seekers or refugees – many of them cramped conditions with little access to healthcare amidst the pandemic. An outbreak can be catastrophic.

Many live on transfers from friends and family and UNHCR handouts. With work hard to find many hope to proceed with their journey to Europe. Smugglers have put hundreds and thousands of them in boats and sent them across the Mediterranean to Italy.

UNHCR has been evacuating some of the most vulnerable refugees until airspace was shut in early April.

On May 13, WHO issued a joint statement on Libya emphasizing that the entire population of the country, especially some 400,000 Libyans that have been displaced – about half of them within the past year, since the attack on Tripoli — are at risk of Covid-19 pandemic.

The statement reported everyday challenges that humanitarian missions and workers face to carry on with their mission. The UN verified 113 cases of grave violations, including killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools, and health facilities.

The report points out that as of May 13, there were 64 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including three deaths, in different parts of the country. This shows transmission of the disease is taking place and the risk of further escalation of outbreak is very high.

The report talks about food security and latest assessments show that most cities are facing shortages of basic food items coupled with an increase in prices, urging all parties to protect the water supply facilities that have been deliberately targeted.

“We look forward with anticipation to the pledged financial support to the Humanitarian Response Plan for Libya, as announced by the GNA,” WHO statement said.

Oil production

Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa with 46.4 billion barrels as of 2010. Much of Libya’s oil wealth is located in the east but the revenues are channeled through Tripoli-based state oil firm National Oil Corporation (NOC), which says it serves the whole country and stays out of its factional conflicts.

Prior to the 2011 Libyan civil war, Libya produced over 1.5 million barrels a day. As a result of a blockade of export terminals by LNA by February of this year oil production dropped to 200,000 barrels a day reports Bloomberg. NOC said the North African state’s current level of production is at 91,221 barrels per day as of March 17.

In order to choke GNA from the crucial crude export revenue, the LNA seized Libya’s export terminals and ports in the east in mid-January. The blockade has cost Libya some $560 million, Petroleum Economist reported in January. 

According to NOC, the blockade has plunged production from around 1.2 million barrels a day, and added losses had surpassed four billion dollars by April 15.

Conflict wages

In the last couple of weeks, significant developments have been happening in the Libyan civil war.

In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance said that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA. He stressed NATO is supporting UN’s efforts for a peaceful solutions to conflicts both in Libya and Syria.

Meanwhile, the independent English language Tripoli-based Libyan Express reported that Haftar launched a rocket attack Thursday on Tripoli, hitting the Central Hospital on other downtown areas. 

Tripoli Central Hospital and some civilian areas were targeted. GNA’s Health Ministry said 14 civilians were injured, adding that the hospital will not be able to serve people due to the attack pointing out what a massive setback was amid the outbreak of Coronavirus.

Libyan military forces said Monday that the Libyan army struck forces loyal to Haftar in Al-Watiya airbase in the southwest of Tripoli during the government-led Operation Volcano of Rage.

LNA has intensified attacks on civilians since the beginning of May as GNA made substantial military progress in the offensive in the western part of Tripoli. Armed drones provided by Turkey conducted effective attacks against the LNA.

Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashaghe has accused Haftar’s forces had used chemical weapons on the Salah Al-Deen front, south of Tripoli. The accusations were confirmed by Canadian journalist Amru Saleheddine, who found several government soldiers with symptoms to those of epilepsy, usually caused by nerve gas.

The conflict in Libya is backed by foreign actors with different objectives and priorities. Any emerging power configuration will be fragile unless the external actors come to a shared understanding.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Internationalization of Higher Education in the GCC Countries

Ivan Bocharov

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Education is an important area of social life, shaping the intellectual and cultural state of society. In the context of globalization, the challenges of time give rise to new trends in it, one of which is internationalization. This process has already swept the whole world, including Arab countries. Some of them, especially the Gulf states, nowadays are actively competing with other exporters of educational services in the world market.

The development paths of higher education in the Arab Gulf countries were analyzed in a scientific article «Internationalization and the Changing Paradigm of Higher Education in the GCC Countries», as well as measures were taken to improve the quality of education and its regional integration. The author of the scientific work is Julie Vardhan, Assistant Professor at the School of Business, Manipal University. The work is based on an analysis of 167 university sites of the countries of the region and some scientific works devoted to the internationalization of higher education, integration, and demographic processes in the GCC countries. The analysis of Julie Vardhan is comprehensive. In addition to university sites, issues related to the history of the internationalization of education were analyzed, as well as data reflecting demographic trends in the GCC countries. These data allow to see the general picture of how the internationalization of higher education is developing in the Arab States of the Gulf.

According to the author’s definition, internationalization is the process of integration of international components into the country’s higher education system. Although universities have always developed international cooperation, globalization has created a new context for internationalization. Over the past decades, the number of educational institutions and students studying in them has sharply increased in the region.

Julie Vardhan divides the countries that compete among themselves in the educational services market into four groups. The first group includes the USA, UK, and Australia. In these countries are the best universities in the world, and English is their native language. The second group consists of Germany and France. German and French universities are trying to attract students from neighbouring countries, as well as those countries with which established strong sociocultural and historical ties. The third group includes Japan, Canada, and New Zealand. They attract from 75 thousand to 115 thousand international students per year. The fourth group consists of Malaysia, Singapore, and China. These countries have recently recognized the importance of global education, and now they are spending resources on the development of higher education to compete effectively in the global educational services market. According to the author, the GCC countries are also included in this group.

The main goal of the Gulf Cooperation Council is to develop integration processes and establish cooperation, including in the field of education. At the same time, the GCC countries face some problems associated with the development of advanced technologies. Recently, governments of member states have begun to pay more attention to the development of human capital to ensure sustainable economic growth. Educational and labour migration of knowledge workers directly affects the development of the country’s economy, and the Arab Gulf states are just interested in creating a knowledge economy.

For studying the electronic resources of educational institutions, the author used the method of content analysis. In particular, Julie Vardhan ascertained whether internationalization was mentioned on the university’s website by searching for the keywords «international», «global», «international partnerships», «international collaboration», «world-renowned faculty» and «diverse students, multicultural». Only one category is used in the study, in which the words mentioned above and phrases are combined, and it is the «phenomenon of internationalization». As part of the study, 167 university websites of the GCC countries were analyzed. Site analysis was limited to their English versions.

The author made a table that shows the growing trend in the number of universities in the region. Until the 1990s in most GCC countries, there were only one or two state universities. Since the early 2000s, a significant increase concerning the number of both state and private universities has been observed. This boost, according to Julie Vardhan, cannot be explained only by population growth. The focus on the development of human capital played a significant role in increasing the number of universities in the country of the region.

Most GCC countries have public and private institutions that establish partnerships with foreign universities. Besides, some international universities create their branches in the countries of the region. Among the 167 universities examined in this study, 103 educational institutions are private, 70 of them have established partnerships with foreign universities, or are their affiliates. In each of them, internationalization manifests itself in different ways. For example, Saudis often go abroad as part of academic mobility programs. At the same time, many students from other countries come to Saudi Arabia to study the basics of Islam at local universities. Thus, within the framework of internationalization, there are both import and export of education. The UAE and Qatar are states with a considerable number of branches of foreign universities, and the universities of Oman and Kuwait offer many double-degree programs.

One of the reasons for the growing demand for educational services from private universities and those universities that have established partnerships with educational institutions from other countries is the increasing number of youth. Another reason is that the Gulf Arab governments support internationalization and educational integration with other countries and foreign universities. Julie Vardhan outlines the following approaches to the internationalization of higher education, which are used by the governments of GCC member states. The first approach is the implementation of neoliberal reforms aimed at increasing the accessibility of higher education while compensating for the costs of consumers and the private sector. The second approach is to make changes to the curriculum to meet international standards. For example, Saudi Arabia, over the past years, has been trying to develop secular education, actively uses English to educate students, and also adopts the American system of education. The third approach is the establishment of extensive partnerships with foreign universities, affecting the international recognition of the prestige of education in the GCC countries.

The author acknowledges that the study has flaws. There is limited potential for the content analysis method. Julie Vardhan points out that the ability to analyze the content of Internet resources is limited by changing the nature of the data source. The content and structure of web pages can change quite quickly after the content analysis. She also notes that researchers should develop their coding scheme for the content analysis of university sites.

Despite some problems (for example, the commodification of education and the transformation of national identity), significant progress has been achieved in the internationalization of higher education in the GCC region in a short time. The region has great potential for further internationalization. The results of the study by Julie Vardhan help to trace the prospects for the internationalization of education in the framework of regional integration of learning. This work is of great scientific interest to anyone interested in the internationalization of higher education in the Gulf countries.

Studying several aspects of the internationalization of education at once prevented the author from concentrating on the electronic internationalization of university Internet resources. The methodology for researching university sites is not spelt out, and it does not specify how exactly the individual stages of content analysis should be implemented. Julie Vardhan believes that researchers should develop their coding scheme, which is the basis of the methodology. It is advisable to create universal and convenient tools for everyone to analyze the content of university sites so that every researcher of the internationalization of higher education can make the maximum contribution to their study. The question remains what difficulties the universities of the Arab countries of the region face in such internationalization. In this context, it is interesting to analyze which state initiatives in the field have been successful, and which experiences have not.

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Middle East: From COVID-19 invasion to an epidemic of disintegration?

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The recent declaration of autonomy in southern Yemen and Khalifa Haftar’s declaring himself the ruler of all Libya once again drew the world’s attention to the phenomenon of separatism. This phenomenon is certainly not new, amply exemplified by events in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol. In Europe, the problem is normally discussed and resolved on a legal basis, if not always peacefully. When it comes to Asia and Africa, the chances of legal settlement of such issues are even lower.

Back in the early 1990s, Bernard Lewis, a renowned expert on Islamic civilization, foresaw the breakup of a number of states in the Greater Middle East. Later, in 2006, Armed Forces Journal published the “future” map of the region, drawn up by the US military expert, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who predicted the division of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite states and the emergence of a number of countries on parts of the territories of today’s Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The events of the largely foreign-influenced “Arab Spring” gave a strong boost to the centrifugal processes in the region. In some places it resulted in the downfall of political regimes, in others it led to their transformation. Armed conflicts flared up in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, which continue to this day and there are no guarantees that before very long these countries’ borders won’t change.

The start of the leap year 2020 was marred by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, followed by an oil price collapse. According to the World Health Organization, the health care systems of developing countries are unable to cope with the pandemic on their own due to the lack of medical facilities, equipment, medical staff and even basic protective gear. While developed countries have allocated huge financial resources to check the spread of COVID-19, poor countries, most of which are struggling for survival, cannot afford the introduction of long-term quarantine, nor do they have enough money to assist their citizens. Moreover, the real picture of the spread of the coronavirus infection in developing countries remains pretty dim, meaning that the socio-political consequences of the pandemic for these countries can be disastrous.

The dramatic fall in oil prices has not only dealt a severe blow to the economies of the oil-producing countries, sharply choking off their budget revenues, but it also exacerbated the situation in the countries that survive largely on money transfers from their citizens working abroad and assistance from oil and gas-rich neighbors.

In addition, the region has enough old problems to deal with.

Yemen, which is a patchwork of various tribes and tribal unions, was established in its present form in 1990 as a union of North and South Yemen (or rather as a result of the annexation of the country’s southern regions by the North). According to the UN, the country experienced a genuine “humanitarian catastrophe” even before the advent of the coronavirus and collapsing oil prices.

Just four years after the unification, the so-called Democratic Republic of Yemen was proclaimed in the country’s south, but existed only a couple of months. In 2014, an armed conflict erupted (and still continues) among the northerners themselves – the Shiite group Ansar Allah and the central government. In March 2015, an international Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia joined the fight against the Iranian-backed Shiites. In addition, the central government has since 2007 been confronted by yet another secessionist organization, now in the south – the so-called Southern Transitional Council, which recently declared self-governance of the territories under its control.

Faced with such a disturbing reality, the governors of several provinces, including the most economically developed ones, stop making financial transfers to the state budget and host foreign ambassadors and foreign military delegations.

Iraq is a country characterized by significant ethno-confessional diversity with almost two-thirds of the population being Shiite Arabs, most of them pro-Iranian due to the fact that during the long reign of the Ba’athists (members of the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party – PASV, or Ba’ath), Shiite Arabs were not considered as 100-percent citizens of the country. During the 2003 intervention by a US-led international coalition, many Shiite organizations allied themselves with the Anglo-American forces. During the subsequent occupation of Iraq, the local administration assumed real power over the country’s Shiite south and to this very day the central government in Baghdad does not completely control the southern governorates.

During the 1960s, the Kurds, who predominantly lived in northern and northeastern Iraq, mounted an armed struggle for independence. The government’s brutal, including with the widespread use of chemical weapons, crushing of the movement in 1987-1989 made it absolutely inacceptable for many Kurds to keep living in the same country with the Arabs, even after Iraqi Kurdistan was granted the status of autonomy in the wake of Operation Desert Storm. The invasion by the Western coalition forces allowed the Kurds not only to establish a regional government, but also to phase out the local Arab population and occupy a number of oil-rich regions, which the Kurdish leaders said had been taken away from them by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

An independence referendum for Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which was an attempt to finally legitimize the Kurdish statehood failed however, even though an overwhelming majority of votes were cast in favor of independence. At that time, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan did not sit well with either Iran and Turkey (as it would sent a “wrong” signal to the Kurds living there), or the United States, who believed that the Kurdish state in Iraq could lead to the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite entity in the south, including in the strategic Basra oil field.

Today, Sunni Arabs fear (rightly or not) that the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will make them defenseless both against the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, leaving them one on one with Iran, which Iraq fought against during the war of 1980-1988.

The ethno-cultural makeup in Syria is equally diverse, with over 70 percent of Syrians being Sunni Arabs and about 15 percent – Shiites, including the Alawites, whose affiliation with Islam is questioned by many. After the country gained independence in 1946, Syrian army officers and members of the state bureaucracy were traditionally and overwhelmingly recruited from Alawites, much to the chagrin of the country’s majority Sunnis, many of whom still support the armed opposition.

In 1920, France carved up the mandated territory of the Middle East entrusted to it by the League of Nations into four zones: Greater Lebanon, the State of the Alawites, the State of Aleppo and the State of Damascus. The Jabal Druze State and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which broke away from Turkey before WWII, were added the following year. However, France later ended its experiment on ethno-confessional division of the region, and the Alawite clan of the Assads, backed by the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party, has thus ruled Syria since 1963.

The “Arab Spring” all but destroyed Syria as an independent state, which survived only thanks to the political and military assistance of Russia and Iran.

The Kurds – the largest ethnic minority in Syria – live in the northeast of the country and make up about 10-12 percent of the population. After decades of discrimination (until recently, the Kurds did not even have Syrian citizenship), big and small revolts, Kurdish politicians, taking advantage of the chaos of the civil war, established regional authorities virtually independent of Damascus. Then, due to their support for the Western coalition fighting ISIL (ISIS, IS, Islamic State – a terrorist entity outlawed in Russia) and apparently heeding the advice of US instructors, the Kurdish groups, like Iraqi Peshmerga, occupied a number of the country’s traditionally Arab oil-bearing territories.

The Syrian Kurds are being sponsored by the United States, which is not going to cede to anyone its control neither over the territory, nor the local administration and militia, let alone the oil fields.

Syrian Turkmens (Turkomans) are a sizeable ethnic group, who are under the watchful care of Turkey.

For Christians (about 6 percent of the population) and Druze (about 3 percent), the threat posed by the Sunni Islamists borders on genocide, hence their unconditional support for the central government.

The territory of modern Libya consists of three historical provinces – Tripolitania (in the west), Cyrenaica (in the east) and Fezzan (in the south), which were united by Italy only in 1934. The country’s population is relatively homogeneous: the vast majority are Arabs, and there are also Berbers who live in the southwest, Tuaregs in the south, and Tubu in the southeast. The tribal organization of society plays a significant role in the socio-political life of the country.

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years until he was deposed and killed in 2011. The country has virtually fallen apart as a result of a long-running war of all against all. There are two main rival political forces now existing in the country – the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar and based in the east of the country, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, with its headquarters in Tripoli. The opponents rely on the support of a various social groups, including Islamists, and divisions run along political, not national or religious lines.

Many analysts still see “a significant potential for the emergence of new centers of power.”

The long-term efforts by outside actors (primarily European countries and Russia) to set in motion the negotiating process have not yet yielded any tangible results. Khalifa Haftar recently announced the transfer of power in the country to the armed forces (i.e. to himself). The GNA assumed an equally implacable position, turning down an LNA-proposed truce for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan.

If the hypothetical disintegration of these four countries becomes real it would lead to a new spiral of degradation of the political situation in the region and to a further escalation of violence.

In the event of a collapse of Yemen, Iran will obtain a satellite in the form of the country’s Shiite north, but complicated logistics may hamper the provision of assistance to its newly-acquired ally. Riyadh will not tolerate Shiite statehood on “its” peninsula, and the military suppression of the Houthis will take long due to the Saudis’ low combat efficiency. Following the example of Djibouti, the country’s north and south will start selling land for  foreign military bases (oil reserves are depleted and you can’t live long off exporting fish, and this is about all the country can sell now), which could escalate tensions in the strategic region of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

In Iraq, interfaith clashes and social protests that began after the main forces of the Anglo-American coalition were pulled out in 2011, have not subsided, to say the least. The Kurds are taking their time, but the 92 percent of the “yes” votes cast in the 2017 independence referendum means that sooner or later they will resume their drift away from Iraq. The country’s breakup into three parts would theoretically be beneficial to Iran as the southern governorate bordering on Saudi Arabia would have to move under Tehran’s control. The country’s Sunni center will find itself sandwiched between Iran, the Shiite south, the Alawite-ruled Syria and the Kurds, who hold a longtime grudge against their Arab fellow citizens. Under such circumstances, the Sunnis will have to look for other patrons – the United States (if, despite all Trump’s statements to the contrary, the Americans stay on in the region, and it looks like they will), Saudi Arabia or Russia. This choice will determine the future course of events in Mesopotamia.

In Syria, centrifugal processes are presently being determined by outside players: Americans support the Kurds, Turks – Turkomans and Sunni Arabs along the border, Iranians – their fellow Shiites, and Saudis back the Arab Sunni tribes in the east. The most likely candidates for secession are the Kurds, who, having expanded their controlled territory in northeast Syria, have actually linked up with the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan. So far, their political leaders haven’t been getting along with each other, but this may change if it meets the interests of Washington, which is sponsoring both.

Libya, meanwhile, is increasingly turning into an arena of proxy war, which the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are waging against Turkey and Qatar. The degree of hatred borne of many years of mutual extermination is going through the roof, making the prospects of a settlement close to nil. The country is actually fighting for oil and control over the flow of refugees, which, as the events of the recent years show, can be quite successfully used as a bargaining chip with Europe.

Many experts warn that any redrawing of borders in the region can bring about a chain reaction and even resuscitate the “Islamic international,” if under a different moniker. Meanwhile, the United States, as the Indian political scientist Brahma Chellaney put it, will not get rid of its addiction to interfering in the “chronically volatile Middle East.” And its policy over and over again turns out to be “spectacularly counterproductive.”  Well, it’s hard to disagree with.

From our partner International Affairs

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