For years, the United States had been a status quo power in West Asia. It wanted oil for its economy and promised security and stability in return to the regional monarchs and despots. Though there were irregular ruptures in this set-up, like the Iranian revolution and the post-revolutionary chaos in the region, both Washington and its allies generally benefited from this. This spell of stability was breached by the disastrous American war in Iraq in 2003. The invasion not only destroyed the Ba’athist state of Saddam Hussein but also unsettled the fragile modus vivendi between sects, ethnicities and religions within the Iraqi society, unleashing forces that were beyond manageable proportions for the U.S. Though the Arab Spring protests later started as a spontaneous social reaction to dictatorships, those were encroached upon by regional and global heavyweights and transformed into an “interest pusher”, a process which weakened the region’s social balancing further, and even cracked it in some societies. What followed was total disaster.
Offshore balancing
The U.S. is now repositioning itself in West Asia, abetted by a number of factors. First, the Obama administration appears to be convinced that Washington’s interventionism has failed miserably in the region. This was Obama’s “Kennan moment”. George Kennan, one of the most influential realists of the 20th century, had warned the Bush administration in late 2002 against invading Iraq. “Today, if we went into Iraq, as the President would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end,” he had said. Mr. Bush, of course, didn’t listen to the critics. Iraq has now been effectively divided. Libya, where a reluctant President Obama “led from behind” a war that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, is now ruled by two governments which are at war with several militias, including the Islamic State.
Second, the U.S.’s dependency on the region for oil has been substantially reduced by the shale oil boom, opening a window of opportunity for the administration to rethink its West Asia strategy.
Third, the Obama administration thinks the U.S. is “overweighted in the Middle East and underweighted in Asia”, where China’s influence is steadily growing. From the early days of his presidency, one of the policy priorities of Mr. Obama was to “pivot” the U.S. power towards Asia. That the U.S. is rebalancing towards China doesn’t mean that it would completely retreat from West Asia. America would remain a dominant power in the region as it’s still committed to Israel’s security. U.S. weapons companies have deep ties with the Gulf monarchs. And it just can’t extricate itself from the mess its interventions have created. But instead of the Bush-type interventions, President Obama, whom Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker calls a “consequentialist”, prefers “offshore-balancing” its interests in the region — fighting terror through targeted air strikes, focussing on diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation, promoting state- and institution-building, balancing American ties between regional rivals, etc. This strategic shift is having two-dimensional consequences on regional politics. It is prompting America’s regional allies to drift away from the traditional alliances, and it is leaving a vacuum which is drawing other powers into the region. The year 2015 saw both these factors at play.
The angry kingdom
Of the U.S.’s allies, the Saudis were particularly upset with the Obama administration. They saw America’s failure to stop Hosni Mubarak, a long-time ally, being toppled in Egypt in 2011 as a betrayal. They were also angry at the administration for not attacking Syria. From the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia was present in the conflict through its proxies. Removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, has always been a strategic priority for Riyadh. But their initial calculation was that the U.S. would bomb Damascus and remove Mr. Assad. When Washington backed off from its threats against Syria even after U.S. officials claimed that Mr. Assad had breached Mr. Obama’s “redline” by using chemical weapons, the Saudis saw it as sign of weakness. Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said in 2013 that Mr. Obama’s back-off “would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious”.
The Salman regime responded to the American reluctance by steadily enhancing Riyadh’s role in the Syrian civil war. The Saudis stepped up military and economic aid to the rebels, which intensified the civil war and directly or indirectly helped the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Another area of contention was the Iran nuclear deal. If the U.S. wanted to neutralise one of its long-standing rivalries in West Asia through diplomatic means, and thereby extend cooperation in counterterrorism, the Saudis were wary of the natural consequence of the American move — a more powerful Iran. Riyadh’s Yemen invasion could be seen against this background. The Saudis bombed Yemen in March, when the nuclear negotiation was in the final stages. The Saudis claimed that the Iranians were backing the Houthi militias of Yemen (largely made up by Shias) and it was interfering on behalf of Yemen’s legitimate government. But in actuality, the Saudis had two goals: one, to strengthen the narrative that Iran is a major supporter of Shia militia groups in the region at a time when international negotiations were on; and two, to prevent the consolidation of an Iranian-backed militia in its backyard. Nine months after the war, Riyadh failed to achieve either of the goals, but the war has destabilised the region further.
The Kurdish question
The year has also seen the rise of Kurds as a counterbalance to the Islamic State on the ground. As President Obama has decided not to send ground troops to Syria and Iraq, it wanted reliant allies on the ground to fight the jihadists . The Iraqi Kurdistan has historically been an American ally. On the Syrian side, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militias of the semi-autonomous Syrian Kurdistan were effectively resisting the Islamic State. But the American dilemma was that YPG is closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the Turkish side, which is described as a “terrorist” group by both Ankara and Washington. Still, the U.S. provided air cover to the YPG in the battles in Kobane and Tal Abyad where the Kurds defeated the Islamic State.
Turkey was upset with this outcome. For decades, it tried to suppress the Kurdish rebellion and isolate the Kurdish national question. Often described as a people without a state, the Kurds are scattered across several countries such as Iraq, Syria and Turkey. If Kurds rise as a unified force from the war against Islamic State, that would set back Ankara’s interests. This explains why Turkey started bombing the PKK this year even as it claims to be a part of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition. The Turkish militarism is actually complicating the Syrian crisis.
The return of Russia
Syria is an important ally of Russia. Moscow’s interests lies in defending the Assad regime. Still, it’s to be noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin sent fighter jets to Syria to attack Mr. Assad’s enemies only in September this year, the fourth year of the Syrian civil war. One explanation of the timing is that the regime was under enormous strain from attacks by multiple enemies and Moscow stepped in to prevent an eventual collapse of the Syrian state. But it’s equally important that by the time Mr. Putin intervened in Syria, it was evident that the U.S. would not attack the regime directly.
Mr. Putin has taken a big risk by deepening the Russian involvement in Syria. The world, particularly Russia’s rivals, would watch how Moscow is shaping the Syrian war through its intervention. But at the same time, Mr. Putin finds an opportunity in the Syrian mess to rebuild Russia’s presence in West Asia. During the Cold War, Egypt and Syria were the two pillars of the Soviet Union’s West Asia policy. When Egypt under President Anwar Sadat shifted towards the American camp in the late 1970s, the Soviet influence in the region diminished. Now, a resurgent Russia is planning to reposition itself in the region through Syria and Iran. The vacuum created by the realignment of the U.S. strategy is providing Russia enough room for manoeuvring.
A dangerous game of chicken
Nobody knows how West Asia will look like once the dust settles. But what can be seen from the present conflicts is that the forces of instability are still at play and the present phase is likely to continue in the coming years. Some foreign policy analysts compare the ongoing crisis with the Thirty Years’ War of 17th century Europe which ended with the Peace of Westphalia, that established a new system of political order in central Europe. It’s too early to make any such predictions about the West Asian crisis. But it’s not hard to understand that there are no easy solutions to the present turmoil which is intertwined with history, religion, ethnicity and power politics.
All eyes are now on whether there would be a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and the rebels next year. If achieved, it would indeed be a breakthrough. But the larger questions on the Islamic State, the Kurdish problem, the Saudi-Iranian cold war, the Russian presence, Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine and the possibility of instability spreading to other parts of the Arab world, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, will continue to roil 2016 and many more years unless and until the region makes a break with its own violent history.
All eyes are now on whether there would be a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and the rebels next year. But the larger questions on the Islamic State, the Kurdish problem, the Saudi-Iranian cold war, the Russian presence, Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine will continue
to roil 2016