I would like to thank Professor Gregory Gause for a very stimulating discussion. The ‘arc of weakness’ is his phrase, and his work is central to my understanding of the region’s security dynamics.
Take a map of the MidEast and draw a line connecting the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean. This is the battlefront in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Two hitherto-strong states of the region, Iraq and Syria, have gone from being ‘players’ in the regional game to ‘playing fields’ for regional and great powers. They join two others, Lebanon and Palestine, to form an ‘arc of weakness’ in the Middle East. Even Egypt, the bellwether of the Arab world, has become the site of regional jockeying for influence. What is the most useful way to think about these developments?
Inside the beltway, the sectarian framework is widely accepted. The Shia-Sunni rivalry is seen as the dominant feature of region’s security dynamics. At a superficial level, this seems reasonable. Saudi Arabia and Iran are self-proclaimed flag-bearers of competing sectarianisms. There is no denying that sectarian rhetoric has increasingly come to characterize political mobilization in the region. However, there are some significant anomalies.
Saudi policymakers are not themselves sectarian, even though they use the rhetoric to mobilize against Iran. Neither are Iranian policymakers. In fact, both see themselves as pitted in a classic balance of power competition. Transnational identities in the Middle East allow states to mobilize populations across borders to increase their influence and undermine their rivals. This provides the optical illusion of a sectarian struggle.
Iran patronized Hamas, a Sunni Islamist radical group, for years. Nearly 20 per cent of Kuwait’s population is Shia, a community which largely supports the beleaguered monarchy. Even as the regime has been challenged to an unprecedented degree and the regional environment has become highly-charged, the Shia have not been targeted by the highly-vocal opponents of the Emir. Despite the brutal crackdown in Bahrain, Iran has not been able to mobilize much support amongst the Shia majority against the al-Khalifa.
The Alawi, the confessional group that forms the core of the Assad regime, were not really considered Shia until recently. As a result of the polarization of the Syrian population, the ‘Alawi have become Shia.’ The Assad regime styles itself as a cosmopolitan and secular bulwark against radical Islam. This rhetoric is, of course, aimed at Western audiences to thwart potential kinetic action by the United States.
The jockeying in Egypt doesn’t fit comfortably in this frame either. The Erdogan administration in Turkey has responded to the Arab uprisings by trying to export its model of democratically elected moderate Islamism in the region. In Egypt, it fully supported the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, the Saudis regard the Brotherhood as the biggest long-term threat to their throne. They viciously opposed the Brotherhood’s rise to power. After the coup d’état that ousted Morsi from power, the Saudis promised billions of dollars in aid to the military junta.
Qatar joined Turkey as a major regional supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. This is surprising because the micro-state is in the Saudi sphere of influence. However, Qatar has emerged as a major base for US military assets. The intensifying security relationship with the United States has enabled the Qataris to conduct a remarkably autonomous, if somewhat eccentric, foreign policy. In Syria, Qatari arms and money were flowing to Islamist extremists. An alarmed Saudi Arabia made them hand over their ‘Syria file’ – an event which marked the apogee of Qatar’s outsized regional influence. The micro-state is unlikely punch so far above its weight in the future.
In Iraq, the northern Kurdish region has come under Turkish protection. This development has generated considerable frustration in Baghdad, but the Iraqi state is a shadow of its former self and in no position to bring the KRG to heel. Despite US opposition, Iraq has allowed Iranian planes to fly through Iraqi airspace to supply weapons to the Assad regime. Gause pointed out that this is the ‘price’ that the Maliki government has paid for Iranian support against the domestic opposition.
On the other hand, Baghdad is afraid of getting too close to the Islamist Republic for fear of losing autonomy. Iraq is very far from becoming an Iranian protectorate, mostly because Iran is not a very useful patron to have. It has little to offer on key issues facing Baghdad – Islamist insurgency, Kurdish moves towards de-facto independence, and access to technology and capital for its energy sector.
All considered, the sectarian frame is not very useful. Another formulation is what we may call a ‘new cold war’ between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the defining feature of the international affairs of the Middle East. As opposed to the sectarian frame, this is a ‘realist’ paradigm. The two powers facing each other across the Persian Gulf are engaged in an intense security competition with each other. The Saudis find the sectarian rhetoric useful to mobilize against Iran since it highlights the latter’s minority status in the Islamic world. However, the Saudis and the ayatollahs are primarily driven by the ‘realist’ calculation of geopolitical competition with a threatening neighbour. How useful is this prism?
I must admit I like this formulation to a great extent. After the dismantling of the Iraqi state in 2003, the Persian Gulf became bipolar. One would naturally expect a period of widespread instability in the wider region to be characterized by alignments along the field lines of this bipolar structure. Indeed, this is manifest. However, this frame is not without its problems. The two most powerful states in the Middle East, Israel and Turkey, are left completely outside the frame. In my view, this is highly-problematic.
Israel has responded to the tide of instability around it with a remarkably calm and judicious policy. This includes a finely-calibrated application of military power in the form of limited airstrikes to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring advanced missiles. However, Israel has very limited influence in the internal affairs of its Muslim neighbours. Since Israel is such a pariah in the Muslim MidEast, actors risk losing their legitimacy if they seek Israeli patronage. Also, unlike the petrostates or even Turkey, Israel does not have either the resources or vital interests at stake, to seek influence in the region. It has no dog in the fight in Syria. Even in Egypt, where Israel strongly prefers the neo-Mubarak regime to the Muslim Brotherhood, it could do nothing but watch.
Despite the spectacularly rapid rise and fall of Turkey’s regional influence in the past few years, Turkey has emerged as a regional heavy-weight and there is virtually no possibility of a return to its historical westward orientation. Turkey has by now given up on EU membership and embraced its role a Middle East power. It may yet prove to be the decisive player in Syria and Iraq.
Perhaps it is best to give up on simplistic binary formulations and work instead in the theory of regional security complexes. The Middle East RSC has seen major transformations in great rapidity. Only ten years ago the Persian Gulf sub-complex became bipolar. Iraq immediately emerged as a major playing field. The structural transformations in the Levant sub-complex have been even more stunning. Egypt has, perhaps temporarily, ceased to be a major player. Syria has become the playing field. Indeed, it would classify as a mini complex had it not been bang in the middle of the MidEast RSC. Turkey used to be the ‘insulator’ between the Middle East RSC and the EU security community. It has emerged as a major pole of the MidEast RSC. We shall omit Egypt from the roaster. For now, it is not a strong state. It will be preoccupied with internal issues for some time to come. However, unlike Iraq, which has been more or less eliminated as a regional power, Egyptian power has not been destroyed. Egypt will be back in the regional game eventually.
The Middle East RSC now has a quadrilateral structure. The two sub-complexes are now symmetric, with a bipolar order both in the Levant and in the Persian Gulf. The arc of weakness is the principal site of competition between not just Iran and Saudi Arabia but all four powers. While the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has inspired quite a lot of commentary, Israel is seen through the lens of Arab-Israeli tension, while Turkey is seen as a passive model for moderate Islamism. What we are observing is very tangible meddling by by these powerful players which has so far escaped systematic analysis.
Israeli airstrikes may not change the balance of forces in Syria but they shape evolution of the conflict by limiting certain developments like the acquisition of advanced missiles by Hezbollah. Turkey is the principal conduit for weapons into Syria. If Assad falters, Turkish influence in Syria will increase further. Any endgame scenario without Assad will feature a major Turkish stamp. With or without Assad’s departure, Turkey will be the decisive player over the Kurdish question in Syria and Iraq. An enduring legacy of the Erdogan administration is the thaw with Kurdish militants that has brought northern Iraq and northern Syria under de facto Turkish protection. If the United States disengages any further from the Levant, the Kurds will go further into the Turkish orbit.
A major development in the MidEast RSC is the emergence of a slew of powerful sub-state actors in the arc of weakness. The Islamic State of Syria and the Levant may soon establish a statelet in northeastern Syria. It is only the most prominent among hundreds of armed groups that have emerged in the fight against Assad. The KRG already enjoys de facto independence. The Kurds in northern Syria have also become autonomous. All these actors seek tangible support from regional patrons. These ‘pull factors’ are sometimes more important than the ‘push factors’ whereby regional powers seek to increase their influence by recruiting clients. Regional players may even get sucked into proxy wars despite their reluctance.
The MidEast RSC has also integrated further. In particular, the Iranian nuclear program has been catapulted to the top of MidEast security agenda. Israel regards its nuclear monopoly in the region as a vital interest. It has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to resort to force to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by its regional rivals. With respect to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is joined by the Saudis who are equally opposed. The ongoing negotiations between the Islamic regime and Washington are crucial. It is unclear if the Saudis and the Israelis can prevent the Obama administration from striking a deal with the ayatollahs. Even though the Israeli lobby has a lot of clout, the United States has powerful incentives to make a deal whereby Iran stays a few months away from breakout capacity and the US allows the sanctions to be lifted.
US policy in the Middle East has also transformed significantly under Obama. The United States has largely left the Levant to regional powers. To be sure, the administration almost got cornered into conducting precision strikes in Syria, to be saved at the last minute by John Kerry’s Hail Mary. It has satisfied itself by monitoring the flow of arms to prevent their acquisition by the most odorous Islamist extremists. In contentious White House deliberations, McDonough and Donilon prevailed against Petraeus, Dempsey, Panetta, and Clinton. The US has settled into a policy of ‘bait and bleed’ – McDonough argued that the Syrian conflict was a major drain on Iranian resources and that a fight between Hezbollah and al Qaeda would work to US’ advantage.
Although the US has made itself scarce in the Levant, the same cannot be said of the Persian Gulf. Despite the withdrawal from Iraq, US security ties to the oil monarchies have intensified. After a long hiatus, US forces have returned to Saudi Arabia, which now features a CIA drone base at a secret location in the desert, presumably for operations in Yemen. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE now host a significant US presence. US sales of advanced weaponry to the oil monarchies has also increased significantly. US security commitments in the Gulf region have also intensified. Every country on the Arabian peninsula is a US protectorate.
This is a matter of US grand-strategy. Military dominance of West Asian energy resources gives the United States a ‘veto’ over its great power rivals that are dependent on access to these resources. It provides critical leverage against a rising China, as well as the original targets of this strategy, Germany and Japan. It is thus simply wrong to think that the US is leaving the Middle East.
The ‘new cold war’ or the sectarian lens works well enough for the beltway because the US is primarily concerned with the Persian Gulf. However, viewing the region from an eye point located at the Strait of Hormuz induces its own distortions. For the dispassionate analyst, the Middle East RSC frame is a considerably more useful tool.