As U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, recently negotiated the denouement of Russia’s very own “Syrian Missile Crisis” in Switzerland, the fate of the Middle Eastern stability is once again subject to the Great Powers.
The Obama administration’s unilateral threat of use of missile strikes against Syria, which was not authorized by the United Nations, has thus far been stopped by a Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical-weapons stockpile and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Reminiscent of October 1962, the Syrian president insists that the initiative is contingent on the U.S. ceasing “its policy on threatening Syria.” Such quid pro quo is subject to a myriad of technical problems in finding and destroying the stockpiles in a warzone. It also represents a considerable leap of faith by the U.S. government to test Syrian and Russian assurances and commitment to an international monitoring regime. Most importantly, however, negotiations take place in the shadow of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear standoff. So what’s at stake is not so much human security for Syrians or regional stability, but Obama’s nonproliferation credibility towards Iran, as well as Putin’s chauvinistic vision of Russia’s place in the world.
Once again, the Middle East is a pawn in great power politics.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the popular uprisings since 2010, the international relations of the Middle East have been far from stable. Alignments and alliances between regional states have always been subject to domestic politics, regime survival, wars with Israel or the manipulation by outside powers during and after the Cold War. There has never been a collective security pact for the Middle East nor any effective economic or political union like the EU, ASEAN or NAFTA. However, with the political changes and violent conflicts associated with the Arab Spring, international relations of the Middle East have become an even more complex web of enemies, friends and backstabbing allies.
One of Henry Kissinger’s greatest books, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (which was his PhD thesis at Harvard) analysed how two European statesmen, British foreign secretary, Viscount Robert Castlereagh, and Prince Klemens von Metternich, Austria’s foreign minister, created the “Concert of Europe,” a sustainable peace between European powers following the Napoleonic wars. Metternich, who ultimately would become the inspiration for Kissinger’s policy of détente with China and the USSR during the Nixon administration, was described by Kissinger as a statesman of the equilibrium. The Austrian aristocrat wanted to create and maintain a sufficient balance of power to ensure system stability amongst European powers rather than trying to defeat a specific foe. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Metternich forged a peaceful balance of power and redrew the post-Napoleonic political map of Europe. European peace was maintained by containing the forces of nationalism and democratization. By subduing demands for checks on monarchical rule and national self-determination, the “Concert of Europe” was the first international regime based on collective security and created a stable peace on the Continent, which—with the exception of the Franco-Prussian War between 1870-1871—would last a hundred years. Europe, ravaged by centuries of war, would experience no major conflict until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
As statesman, Henry Kissinger practiced Metternich’s qualities, divorcing diplomacy from morals and ideology or concerns about the internal politics of other countries. To Kissinger, stability was the primary goal of diplomacy. Other great statesmen like Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik (post-war Germany’s version of détente), Helmut Kohl’s commitment to European integration and management of German reunification after 1989, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership before, during and after the Second World War and even the EU’s policy of constructive engagement with Iran until 2003 mirrored this commitment to stability.
Why is there no peace?
But why does the Middle East have no Metternichs?
Why is there no Congress of the Middle East, capable of maintaining regional peace and security?
The answer to this question has to be attributed to both the nature of regional political systems and the curse of geopolitics. The Middle East has thus far not produced an indigenous collective security system or even an alliance system close to the Concert of Europe, never mind NATO. There certainly has been no shortage of efforts.
In 1950, the Tripartite Declaration between France, Britain and the U.S. vowed to supply arms to regional states (contingent on non-aggression) for the “internal security and self-defense or defense against regional outside aggressor.” Two years later, Turkey and Greece joined NATO. Both were initiatives designed to deter the Soviets rather than deal with regional security. Further attempts to create mutual defense regimes in the Middle East failed. President Truman failed with a military pact, the “Middle East Command”, based in Egypt and modeled after NATO with an integrated command structure and led by a British supreme commander. It was rejected by Egypt’s leadership, which beneath the veneer of this anti-Soviet alliance recognized the signs of Western imperialism and the threat it posed to Arab independence. The “Baghdad Pact” in 1955, was a mutual defense regime between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Britain was also rejected by Egypt, with Gamal Abdel Nasser branding Iraqi prime minister Nuri Said an “
Legacies of the Gulf wars – all three!
There has been no regional defense pact since then. Neither the Arab League nor the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have collective-security treaty obligations. Rather, U.S. extended security and power balancing between states have created a highly fluid system of allies and enemies. U.S. regional surrogates, like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel have either been armed with weapons made in America, enjoy an iron-clad relationship with Washington or are hosting U.S. forces.
The Pax Americana in the Middle East has never been a stable one. The U.S. served as honest broker only after all of the Israeli-Arab wars. The U.S. government also could not prevent the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, but instead fueled it (as did European powers) to contain revolutionary Iran. Fully aware that Iraq could attack Iranian troops with chemical weapons, the Reagan administration provided Saddam Hussein with vital intelligence and political support. And whatever forces and allies the George H.W. Bush administration was able to amass in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991, it was unable to do before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. More importantly, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council enforced the concept of collective security for the second time only after the Korean War in 1950. The fact that the international community was coming to the immediate rescue of Kuwait only reinforced Iran’s security dilemma. After all, Tehran had been fighting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in what was the twentieth century’s longest conventional war. Iran’s painful experience of mustard gas, cyanide and sarin on the battlefield and Western complicity during the conflict, followed by the international coalition to liberate Kuwait, has not only led to deeply entrenched societal abhorrence of chemical weapons but also continues to inform Iran’s mistrust of the international community and its strategy of deterrence towards the Arab states, towards Israel, and towards the United States in particular. The Iran-Iraq war created a reference point for regional security and further consolidated an American security framework for the Persian Gulf. So, far from creating a sustainable peace after 1988, the U.S.-led Gulf Wars in 1990-91 and 2003 coupled with the policy containment of Iran only reinforced the region’s balance-of-power politics and the confrontational course Washington and Tehran had embarked on after 1979.
Order before justice
As if regional relations weren’t precarious enough, then there comes the Arab Spring. The impact of the political upheavals on the international relations of the Middle East has divorced the region even further from the prospect of peace.
Realists put a premium on order before justice. It is evident that President Obama is much less informed by a humanitarian imperative, but rather needs to restore U.S. credibility, given his warning that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line.” Right now there is neither order nor justice in the Middle East. International order is unlikely to be achieved with missiles fired from the Mediterranean into Syria, nor by the continuous lack of diplomatic comanagement by regional powers. By the same token, justice and democracy seem a distant reality for the people of the Middle East. Power-based diplomacy between regional states and by outside powers has not brought about peace between Israel and the Arab states nor between Israel and Palestine. Power-based diplomacy has also prevented any rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran and has allowed Saudi Arabia to violently crush democratic movements in the Gulf and beyond. In fact, following the Saudi-led GCC Operation Peninsula Shield in 2011 to restore order and stamp out democratic dissent in Bahrain, the host country of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, King Abdullah has been described by one scholar as the “Metternich of Arabia”. As the West enforced a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, the air forces of the UAE and Qatar (which was the first Arab country to recognize the Libyan rebels as the new legitimate representative of the country) joined U.S., British and French forces in helping Libyan rebels in ousting Muammar Qaddafi. In the same year, the antirevolutionary and antidemocratic would-be Metternichs of the Gulf forwarded the prospect of membership to the only two monarchies outside the Gulf, Morocco and Jordan. In February 2013, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and King Abdullah II of Jordan were allocated $2.5 billion dollars in aid from the Gulf monarchies to maintain the political status quo and further extend Saudi influence and strategic depth outside the Gulf. After the ousting of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian armed forces in July of this year, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait were quick to congratulate the military relics of the ancien regime—and pledged over $ 12 billion assistance in form of oil, capital and interest-free deposits in the Central Bank of Egypt. This kind of political power brokerage across the region has been funded by high oil proceeds. Needless to say, oil rents continue to be used by the Gulf monarchies to shore up their own domestic support. More importantly, however, according the IISS 2013 Military Balance, petrodollars have allowed a rise in defense spending in the region from $155.9 billion in 2011 to $166.4 billion in 2012. As post-conflict Libya struggles with a weak central government and a slow process of DDR (demobilization, disarmament and reintegration) of militias and the armed forces, the Syrian theatre witnessed the influx of these very weapons, foreign military and intelligence advisers and paramilitaries from across the region. The Syrian conflict has become the main theatre for the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.