If You Thought 2016 Was Bad in the Middle East – Brace Yourself for 2017
It is difficult to be optimistic about the Middle East in 2017.
With the bloodshed in Aleppo, Mosul, Yemen and elsewhere in the region, the anger, hatred and sectarian divides have only grown deeper.
Indeed, while some point to Tehran celebrating its victory in Aleppo, success on the battlefield is coupled with even deeper divisions between Iran and some of its Arab or Sunni neighbours, paving a path towards greater conflict rather than reconciliation.
Ultimately, as all parties involved should know, true security only stems from the ability to live in peace with one’s neighbours, not one’s ability to outgun them.
Thus, the celebrations of today ring very hollow, as the region as a whole is likely heading towards greater instability in the year to come.
It is fashionable in Washington today to blame the bloodshed in the region on the Obama administration’s perceived inactivity and unwillingness to commit the United States to a more militant posture in the Middle East.
Such assessments tend to overlook the deeper structural causes that have helped create the current crisis – structural factors that predate Obama and which the US has little ability to impact.
Reality is that since the early 1990s, the order in the region was an unnatural one.
The Dual Containment policy put into place by the Clinton administration guaranteed order in the region by supporting the US’s main allies in the region – Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – while isolating and containing Iran and Iraq.
While this order did provide the region with a degree of stability, it was not able to sustain itself – it was directly dependent upon US military and economic power.
The main benefactors of this order – again, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – neither possessed the power nor the political will to uphold this order. They were free riding on American power and saw no reason as to why they shouldn’t.
Invasion of Iraq
A regional order based on the exclusion of two of the most powerful states of that region does not have a good chance of enduring in the long run under any circumstances.
But it wasn’t the opponents of this order – primarily Iran – who destroyed it, but rather the US itself.
By invading Iraq in 2003 and failing the task of stabilising the country in the post-war period, the US didn’t just destroy that country, but instability in Iraq spread throughout the region and destroyed both the regional order and, perhaps more crucially, it weakened the US to the degree that it no longer had the power, credibility and political will to stabilise the Middle East and establish a new order there.
The vacuum that was created by this ordeal set off by the US itself then also helped midwife other, underlying societal challenges in the Arab world that earlier had been prevented from fully surfacing in the pre-2003 era.
While the US was strong, its autocratic allies felt confident in clamping down on internal dissent. They could count on the US’s silence – whatever protests or gentle pushes for reform Washington mustered, they never challenged the political status quo of its allies.
By 2011, however, the story was different. The US was now significantly weakened.
The cost of sustaining order in the region had skyrocketed, courtesy of the Iraq War, while the dividends of hegemony were plummeting.
Now sustaining the order not only entailed maintaining stability between states, but rebuilding collapsed and collapsing states.
Though it tried to keep Mubarak in power, the Tahrir Square protesters revealed this new reality: America’s ability to shape the outcome of events in the Middle East was not what it used to be.
Ripe for revolution – but not democracy
The power to tilt the scale in favour of Mubarak simply did not exist any longer. By weakening the US through the unwise invasion of Iraq, Washington no longer had the capacity to protect its authoritarian Arab allies in the region.
Once American support for these dictatorships was gone, the long existing societal factors that all pointed in the direction of change (but had been largely stymied by Washington’s backing of the autocrats) came to the forefront and rendered these states ripe for revolution – though not for democracy.
Just as much as power begs to be balanced, disorder begs to be re-ordered.
With Pax Americana dead and buried, regional powers were thrown into a vicious zero-sum game to safeguard their interests, and establish a new order beneficial to their own security imperatives.
These transition periods from one order to another are historically particularly violent and unstable.
While a stronger US military posture arguably could have helped protect some of Washington’s interests in the region or perhaps delayed the security deterioration temporarily, the idea that a more militant US policy could have fixed the region’s problems is a mirage.
As the former director for the Middle East in Obama’s National Security Council, Phil Gordon, points out:
“In Iraq, the US intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the US intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the US neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.”
Absent a wholesale attempt to create a new order – a task Washington lacks the power to undertake on its own – isolated cases of military intervention won’t bring durable stability to the region or alter the trajectory of its political developments.
Nor is the current instability a result of the historic nuclear deal with Iran from 2015.
While the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has intensified over the years, its roots are found in the post-2003 disorder and their jockeying to influence the future balance in the region.
Even the convergence of Saudi and Israeli interest in countering Iran predates the nuclear deal.
Already in 2006, Saudi Arabia was a de facto partner of Israel in its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The difference today is that Saudi Arabia is much more open about its collusion with Israel. The nuclear deal didn’t cause their de facto alliance, it only brought it out of the shadows.
Going forward, there are few signs that stability will return to the region in 2017. Even if the battle of Aleppo signals a turning point in the war in Syria, it is unlikely to signal the end of the war.
Russia and Iran may be celebrating their victory, but true stability will only come to the region when all of the regional powers commit themselves to a diplomatic process of brokering a new order.
Currently, however, there is far more commitment to military rather than diplomatic strategies. Absent a reversal of this, 2017 will be even grimmer than 2016.