Grave Threats to the Middle East

The Middle East is experiencing a period of unusual violence and instability. Careful observers of the region are well aware that a major restructuring of regional power relationships is taking place which, if carried further, could have radical consequences. It might even result in a redrawing of the frontiers of the states created by the Western powers almost a century ago after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.
The present situation is one of great complexity marked by a number of vicious and overlapping power struggles. Consider for a moment the impact of the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, engineered to universal surprise by U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Israel last month. Three years of Israeli-Turkish hostility were suddenly brought to an end when, prompted by Obama, Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu apologised for the Israeli attack on a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, which had sought to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in May 2010. It will be recalled that Israeli commandos had stormed the ship, killing nine Turks on board.
An immediate result of the American-brokered reconciliation was the creation of a U.S.-Israeli-Turkish coalition, united around the goal of bringing down President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. Indeed, on the eve of Obama’s visit to the Middle East, his newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry had given a clue to American objectives when -- referring to Assad’s determination to cling on to power -- he had said: “My goal is to see us change his calculation.”
However, Assad’s overthrow may be no more than the first objective of the new U.S.-Israeli-Turkish coalition. Its wider aim would seem to be to destroy the Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah alliance which has managed, over the past 30 years, to impose limits on the regional ambitions of both the United States and Israel. Indeed, the alliance is now under threat since each of its members finds itself in great difficulty: Iran is under painful economic siege by the United States and under threat of military attack by Israel; Syria is in the throes of a hugely destructive civil war; while Hizballah, bereft of its two major allies, finds itself on the defensive, even in Lebanon its home territory.
In other words, the new US-Israeli-Turkish coalition would seem to be on the verge of achieving a spectacular success which would confirm its status as the dominant regional axis. However, all is not smooth sailing since this new power grouping faces a challenge from a rival Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis which -- with support from Iraq, China and even from distant Algeria -- is determined to prevent the collapse of the Syrian regime and the emergence of a new U.S.-dominated system in the Middle East.
This power struggle between the two major groupings – United States-Israel-Turkey versus Russia-Iran-Syria – is by no means the only game in town. For one thing, the partners in the first coalition do not share exactly the same objectives. The United States detests Iran’s independent stance and wants to bring it to heel, with a view to ending Tehran’s challenge to America’s regional hegemony. Israel’s ambitions are more specific: It is determined to put a stop to Iran’s nuclear activities -- which it suspects are not entirely peaceful -- in order to protect its own regional monopoly of nuclear weapons.
As for Turkey, it had ambitious hopes, before the present crisis, of heading a regional grouping to its south composed of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Visas between them were abolished. Turkey evidently hoped to extend this alliance to the Gulf States in the belief that a land route across Syria would help its businessmen win major construction contracts in the affluent oil-rich Gulf.
These ambitions have now proved illusory. Instead, Turkey finds itself facing two distinct threats -- from a huge flood of Syrian refugees and from Syria’s ambitious Kurds who dream of uniting with Turkey’s own Kurds in a bid for regional Kurdish statehood. To head off this threat, Turkey has been making unprecedented overtures to its own Kurds which, if successful, could lead to the release of the Kurdish leader Abdallah Ocalan from his island prison where he has languished since his capture in Nairobi (Kenya) by Turkish Special Forces in 1999. Last month, on the occasion of the Kurdish New Year, Ocalan called on Kurdish rebels to lay down their arms, a move which seemed to herald a new departure in Kurdish relations with Ankara, and could even lead to the Kurds being given a measure of autonomy in Turkey.
Syria lies at the heart of a brutal power play. Its destruction and dismemberment could rewrite the rules of the regional game and might even threaten some of the borders of the new states which emerged after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago. Lebanon, for one, finds itself in extreme danger. Any change of regime in Syria would threaten its fragile stability by upsetting the existing balance of power between its rival communities. Jordan is also under threat. Weak and vulnerable, it has been unable to resist pressures to join the U.S.-Israeli-Turkish campaign against Bashar al-Asad. Indeed, some of Syria’s enemies are now being armed and trained in Jordan. Yet, at the same time, a massive influx of Syrian refugees is threatening Jordan’s precarious internal balance. Indeed, if Israel continues its seizure and settlement of the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan might one day have to cope with a new flood of Palestinian refugees. Every Jordanian remembers the lapidary phrase of the former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon: “Jordan is Palestine.”
It is evident that the region faces a period of enormous turmoil, with potentially far-reaching consequences for its stability and prosperity. Such are the dangers that, instead of fighting each other, the United States and Russia should join in imposing a ceasefire on the warring parties. No doubt some extremist groups will want to continue fighting but they should be isolated and curbed, while all those ready to talk should be brought to the conference table. The aim should be to encourage a peaceful change of government -- perhaps even of regime -- in Damascus, in such a way as to rebuild the shattered country, bring the refugees home and guarantee the protection of Syria’s ancient and numerous minorities.
If the major powers fail to impose something of this sort -- with generous financial help from the Gulf States for the rebuilding of Syria -- it is easy to predict even greater communal violence, the flight of even more refugees, together with the massacre of vulnerable communities. This would not only destroy the Syrian Arab Republic, as we know it, within its present borders, but could have catastrophic consequences for the whole region. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global