Russia is now playing the most significant role in the region it has had since Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” helped push the Soviet Union out in the wake of the Yom Kippur War in the 1970s. President Putin has clearly chosen to back the Assad regime to the hilt, both for geopolitical reasons and domestic concerns regarding possible Islamist uprisings within his own borders. This has proven to be another bone of contention between Russia and the United States and tensions will inevitably increase as the looming Cold War 2.0 between Russia and West picks up steam in Ukraine. Even more significantly, Russia is clearly angling to play a major spoiler role in U.S. and European diplomatic efforts to restrain the Iranian nuclear program. As events in Ukraine and Eastern Europe continue to decline, Russia will no doubt play the Iran card. Besides blocking diplomatic progress, Russia is likely to resume cooperation over building nuclear power plants in Iran. This will only exacerbate the Sunni-Shia and Israeli-Iranian tensions. Nor is this the only sandbox in which Putin is playing. Russia is looking to resume a privileged position in Egypt in the wake of Egyptian disillusionment with America’s whipsaw policies since the heady days of Tahrir Square.
While the United States and Russia are the two most notable Great Powers engaged in the Middle East today, the region’s importance as a supplier of energy leaves the door open to other powers that may need to defend their interests. None would be as pivotal as China, which is expected to see its thirst for Middle Eastern resources continue to become more ravenous. Some estimates show that by 2020, nearly two-thirds of China’s oil imports will be from OPEC countries. Though China today seeks to use its commercial power and not hard, military power; complete instability throughout the Middle East would have the most deleterious effect on it as any other nation. If its energy costs skyrocket even as it seeks to undergo a fundamental domestic economic transformation, it may prove impossible for China not to be forced to engage more robustly in the region. When this happens, tensions with the United States, and possibly Russia, will add to the cauldron.
If this all seems complex, it is. There is no single cause for the conflicts embroiling the region. Though the Tunisian self-immolation began the Arab Spring, the context into which it exploded can only be appreciated by navigating through the massive thicket of competing historical interpretations of events.
One could go back no further than the U.S. intervention in Iraq to explain the rise of the Shia. One could go back to the Cold War to understand the geopolitical imperatives of Russia’s interest in the region. One could even go back to the end of World War I to find the seeds of conflict planted in the European carve-up of the defeated Ottoman Empire. If one wants to really dive deeply into these troubled waters, one could examine the emergence of the Shia Sunni schism, following the Prophet Muhammad’s death. These events have brought the region to the precipice of disaster.
Europe’s Thirty Years’ War was a massively destructive conflict, perhaps even more destructive in its day for Europe than the twentieth century’s world wars. It is difficult to determine whether or not the bloodshed in the Middle East will continue on for as long or wreak the same amount of devastation. However, for now, the Thirty Years’ War serves as a useful lens through which to analyze the tragic events in the Middle East. Obviously, the differences are legion, but today’s Middle Eastern conflicts share the same driving force as the Thirty Years’ War: a major sectarian conflict that has metastasized into a regional power struggle than in turn is slowly metastasizing into a Great Power competition.
Analysts looking for “win-win” scenarios that reinforce rule of law-based global order will be disheartened; a happy ending does not appear to be in the cards for the region. This is Hell. The Westphalian order gave some meaning to the lives lost in the Thirty Years’ War; the question for today’s Middle East is whether anything worthwhile can be salvaged out of the ashes of the present desolation.
Greg R. Lawson is a contributing analyst at the web-based geopolitical consultancy,Wikistrat. These views are his own.
Image derived from: Wikimedia Commons/Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr/CC by 3.0