New fault lines that define the Middle East
Whether it was the fragmentation of the Arab world after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the scramble among European “powers” to dominate the region, post-colonial Arab nationalism or, until recently, US dominance of the region — the Middle East has almost always had distinct fault-lines and alignments.
It was easy to point a root cause of the ensuing struggles that sought to strike the right balance between moderation and radicalism, authoritarianism and democratization, pan-Arabism or Western-style self-determination, and numerous other ideological bifurcations.
However, the chaotic aftermath of the “War on Terror” and repeated missteps after the Arab Spring, followed by Washington’s intensifying urge to withdraw from the region, have ushered in a new era of Middle East power dynamics.
New allegiances against common “adversaries” now crisscross a formerly fragmented landscape marked by intense competition and rivalries, as the era of bold interventions by far-off militaries gives way to a novel mix of proxies and hybrid high-tech warfare by regional medium powers. In short, it is no longer the geopolitical ambitions of super-powers that dominate the region, but the appetites for regional domination and geoeconomic designs by some of the region’s own capitals.
Conflict is no longer guided by the pursuit of nebulous ideals but realpolitik gambles for self-preservation against growing threats, perceived or legitimate, and to widen spheres of influence in the power gaps of America’s inevitable permanent withdrawal.
Contrary to the usual refrains and alarmism against further US disinterest lest the region descend into intractable chaos, it is highly unlikely that the Middle East will ever see such a future. The future conflict landscape is already taking shape in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Arguably, developments in the eastern Mediterranean, Palestine and even the disputed Western Sahara are also reflective of the how the region’s conflict dynamics will play out.
While the states of affairs in Syria, Libya and Yemen may have different root causes, the relatively recent interventions by rival regional interests in these conflict zones cannot simply be dismissed. In fact, external actors actually have a far bigger influence on how these conflicts will either persist, freeze or hobble their way through to some form of resolution than the will of the citizenry or any urging from the international community.
The chaotic aftermath of the “War on Terror” and repeated missteps after the Arab Spring, followed by Washington’s intensifying urge to withdraw from the region, have ushered in a new era of Middle East power dynamics.
Thankfully, gone are the days of large-scale offensives driven by extremely narrow zero-sum objectives, with little concern for the post-conflict period — a go-to strategy for distant military superpowers, at least until after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Failure to account for and mitigate the spillover effects of war as well as lack of interest in the post-conflict phase have consistently led to developments that imperil regional security and stability. It was unsurprising, therefore, and to some, a welcome development to see regional actors wading into Libya, Turkey in Syria, or the Gulf states rising to halt the Houthi encroachment in Yemen.
However, given the lessons of postwar Iraq combined with limited, often constrained national budgets and small populations, large-scale military operations by regional powers that require massive and unprecedented commitments of men, munitions and money are no longer tenable or sustainable. It is why Cairo only went as far as a unilateral declaration of a red line to halt the Turkish-backed, internationally recognized Government of National Accord from over-running its ineffectual proxies from eastern Libya. Meanwhile in Syria, Turkey’s involvement is restricted to a narrow strip along its southern border, while Tehran refrains from direct confrontations in favor of a combination of incendiary rhetoric and emboldened proxies to drive its regional destabilization agenda.
These are just a few examples of what is effectively a "rethink" of the most efficient strategies among regional medium powers, particularly those aligned with Washington and wary of its departure along with its security “umbrella.” Any new strategies will also have to retain the ability to stabilize growing spheres of influence, maximize the benefits of new alignments against common adversaries or, in Turkey’s case, even test the waters with a neo-Ottoman expansionist agenda. By transforming conflict and intervention strategies, combining them with broader geopolitical ambitions, it should inform us of the kind of future that awaits the Middle East.
What does such a future look like?
Unlike the battlefields in the War on Terror or the urban hellscapes left in the aftermath of the struggles to democratize Syria and Libya, hostile confrontations among regional rivals will not be as violent, widespread or catastrophic. Instead, sporadic, relatively small-scale skirmishes, within clearly defined “red lines” and among local nonstate armed actors backed by regional sponsors, will dominate the future conflict landscape.
Surprisingly, most of these will occur not in pursuit of material gains or strategic advantages but more to influence attempts at diplomacy or the trajectory of settlement dialogues. It is less risky and less costly, and even allows regional powers to escape culpability for the inevitable atrocities committed in the fog of war. Furthermore, it allows countries to mix negative-sum military confrontations with positive-sum diplomacy — making it possible for countries to continue influencing post-conflict developments and relevant political processes to safeguard their interests.
It is not to say the Arab world will cease preparing for the eventuality of large-scale military offensives, as inadvisable as they are now. However, by shrinking the scale of conflicts, fortifying areas of control behind red lines and coordinating with local non-state or sub-state actors, the region is able to avoid the worst atrocities or the chaos alarmists portend as the future of a Middle East without the US. Granted, juggling numerous, competing interests in settlement dialogues or processes will only extend the timeline from conflict to settlement as seen in Libya.
Fortunately, a silver lining remains given the fact that belligerents are far less likely to go to war, since the risks of doing so outweigh any perceived benefits. Thus, what lies ahead is not a fragmented landscape of nascent powers backed by powerful, far off military superpowers, but new regional dynamics shaped by three distinct polarities — the Gulf states, the Ankara-Doha alliance and the “Shiite crescent” — amenable to dialogue but equally well-positioned to frustrate encroachments on their spheres of influence.
It would be a paradox if the intensification of regional rivalries resulted in less instability and conflict in the Middle East than expensive, ill-conceived and misguided interventions ever did.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell