The Chess Game in the Middle East and the Gulf

Khattar Abou Diab

With the nearing end of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria and after the battle of Kirkuk, the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Syrian Army and the pro- Iranian militias have joined at the al-Bukamal crossing in a gesture meant to highlight the Iranian crescent project extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Those events along with the ballistic missile launched on Riyadh and the recent crisis in Lebanon indicate the beginning of another round in the continuing battle to counteract Iran’s expansionist project in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf. Iran is trying to reap advantages from the war in Iraq, Syria’s disintegration and the weakening of the Lebanese state.
The century-old Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement gave birth to new entities in the Middle East, carved out of the territory of the defunct Ottoman Empire. A new tidal wave of destruction and restructuring has seized the region. There is a profusion of scenarios about the possible outcomes of the disastrous conflicts that have wiped out central governments in some countries and created de facto zones of influence.
The chess match being played out in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, however, is not controlled by geopolitics and access to energy considerations alone. Ethnic and sectarian interests mix with conflicts of influence to create a sea of storms in the region. Starting with the onset of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and gaining momentum after the rise of ISIS in 2014, a new big game defined by the clashing interests of major world powers and regional powers has also seen the light.
In the 20th century, the sick man of the Middle East was the Ottoman Empire. In the 21st century, however, it is the Arab world. New strategic plans for the region are being charted to the detriment of Arab interests. The Arab world is structurally too weak and disunited to represent any obstacle to these plans.
The downward spiral of the Arab world as a regional force began with the 2003 war on Iraq and the balance of influence in the region shifting to the benefit of Israel, Iran and Turkey. Policy choices during former US President Barack Obama’s administration and the rise of Russia’s role in the region continue to expose the Arab world to further strategic erosion.
Mosul has fallen from ISIS’s control. Then came the battle of Kirkuk, which wiped out the Kurdish dream at the hands of a tripartite coalition comprised of Iraq, Turkey and Iran. It is clear that Iran is trying to restructure the area according to its agenda and in coordination with Moscow while giving Turkey a minor role.
Pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East have begun to take positions. Some militias have moved towards eastern Syria and others are trying to tighten their grip on power levers in Lebanon and Yemen. They are trying to create a de facto state of affairs before a containment plan is put out by the Trump administration.
Iran is also trying to create favourable breaches in Arab countries and is taking advantage of the fact that some of them do not give priority to countering Iranian moves. The absence in the Arab world of a shared vision of common strategic interests and priorities or of common security policies works in favour of the Iranian plan for the region.
During this new phase in the power struggle, Iran’s target is clearly Saudi Arabia. In addition to ballistic missile threats and proxy militia warfare, Iran has intensified its political warfare.
The recent sudden resignation of the Lebanese prime minister marks the beginning of political manoeuvring to isolate Lebanon from its Arab ties. Saad Hariri has indeed denounced Tehran’s pressure to place Lebanon within its orbit and annul the conditions related to the Lebanese presidential agreement of 2016, which insist on keeping Lebanon free of allegiance to any regional axis.
The missile attack on Riyadh is a very serious transgression. Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States, are believed to have several defence options at their disposal. What is certain is that Iran’s provocations will push the Saudi kingdom to focus on its defences and find new ways of managing the conflict.
Khattar Abou Diab
is director of the Council on Geopolitics and Perspectives in Paris.
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