Restructuring the Middle East

Peace & Security19 Sep 2013George Joffé

The ongoing crisis in the Middle East increasingly looks to be a replicate of the divisions of the Cold War when local conflicts became proxy conflicts for the confrontation between East and West. Of course, ideological commitment has been replaced by strategic and economic concerns but, once again, East confronts West through their Shi’a or Sunni regional clients. As a result, local conflicts become intractable global disputes, as the region’s domestic struggles through the ‘Arab Awakening’ for proper governance and for equitable economic development are subsumed into wider concerns over hegemonic stability and multi-polarity.

The key question now is how the relationship between Russia and the United States will develop, given their surprising and sudden cooperation over Syria’s chemical weapons. Does this mean that Washington has now accepted multi-polarity with Russia as a global player in international affairs? Will their cooperation mean a renaissance for the United Nations as the forum for the resolution of global disputes? How, now, will regional states accept a new collective Great Power hegemony?

Until the surprise Russian proposal for the Assad regime in Syria to abandon its chemical weapons, depositing them instead with the international community, it appeared that an American-led strike on Syria was inevitable. Even though the British parliament had rejected participating in such an initiative and President Obama had decided to seek Congressional approval as a result, America’s global prestige demanded such action. Yet, at the same time, the G20 meeting in St Petersburg in early September 2013 had highlighted profound policy divergencies between the world’s major powers over how to handle the crisis in Syria. Russia, the meeting’s host, resisted increasing American pressure for an airborne attack on Syria in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons at the end of August without prior United Nations Security Council approval. Mr Obama’s United Nations ambassador, Samantha Powers, railed at Russia for its persistent obstructionism inside the selfsame Security Council. Only some Arab states, particularly the Gulf, France and, at least in terms of its own rhetoric, Britain, with Canada and Australia as hangers-on, seemed unambiguously on the American side, being prepared to ignore the United Nations, whilst Mr Ban Ki-moon, the organization’s secretary-general, impotently insisted that that was the only path which satisfied international law.

It all sounded very like a replay of Iraq in 2003 or even the Cold War which supposedly ended over two decades ago. Then, as now, Western states, citing imperatives of humanitarian intervention argued that they could ignore state sovereignty in defence of international law concerning banned weapons and the abuse of civilians, whilst Russia and China promoted the sovereign right of states against intervention.1 Then, as now, the complex interplay of crises of governance and development within the region became enmeshed in the quite different global agendas of outside powers. Then, as now again, the Middle East’s dominant role in world oil markets forced external intervention by East and West alike in its domestic affairs. In short, because of this complex interplay between regional and global concerns, the region continued to dominate the international agenda, as it had during the Cold War, despite a supposedly very different contemporary world order in which economic strategy had replaced ideological commitment.

The question now is to what extent the surprising and sudden cooperation between Russia and the United States over Syria’s chemical weapons presages a change in such a divided global security environment. It is certainly true that, in the short-term, the new initiative resolves a major problem of credibility for the American president, particularly if the current cooperation evolves into a viable peace conference in Geneva, with Russia forcing the Assad regime to participate. Then a solution similar to that ended the Balkan wars in the 1990s could emerge. But is the United States really prepared to concede its hegemonic position to a new concert of the great powers, as occurred in the nineteenth century? This seems unlikely, so that an underlying tension between hegemonic stability and multi-polarity – the essence of the Cold War, in short – seems likely to continue. What may have changed, however, is, as during the brief period of détente in the 1970s, that the two sides could collaborate on occasion diplomatically at the United Nations whenever they shared diplomatic goals, thus restoring credibility to that battered organization and, most importantly, to the Security Council.2

The geopolitical imperative

So the Cold War parallel might not be exact but it is not inappropriate; relations between Russia and the USA were at a nadir and relations between Russia and the European Union are problematic, to say the least. Despite European dependence on Russian gas, former Soviet satellites, such as Ukraine and Moldova, contemplate closer ties with Europe to growing Russian resentment. More than that, it seems to reflect a geopolitical imperative; for Russia, the Middle East is still its ‘near abroad’, a zone of influence which Moscow considers crucial to its security as a defensive glacis, not to speak of its economic interests there, particularly over arms sales into the region. Given Russian sensitivities over the way in which the Cold War ended and its own attempts to rebuild its international position after the end of the Yeltsin era, the United States hardly seemed a welcome partner, given its own ongoing interests in the region.3

For the United States, the Middle East, despite the famed ‘Asian pivot’ selected as the new axis of American global strategy in recent years, remains a region of dominant interest for strategic, security and atavistic reasons. As relations with Russia have worsened in recent years over Russia’s domestic and regional policies, it has been the Middle East in which confrontation has developed, given Russia’s assumptions of the critical importance of the region to its own security. Moscow, too, has gone out of its way to reverse the ‘colour revolutions’ of the last decade in its nearer ‘near abroad’ of former Soviet satellite states, emblematic in its eyes of American arrogance in trying to reconstruct a natural Russian sphere of influence in its own image. For the Kremlin, American policy in the Middle East has been an extension of the same obsession over ‘democracy’ and free markets under an American aegis in which ‘democracy’ means little more than subservience to the United States.

Yet, apart from such great power rivalry, the United States has its own economic and financial reasons for continuing to be focussed on the Middle East, despite the desires of the Obama administration to reorient strategic policy elsewhere. The Mediterranean, for instance, is one of the most important trade routes in the world; it carries up to 30 per cent of east-west world trade and is a crucial pathway for oil from the Gulf to Europe and even America itself. As a ‘strategic line of communication’ for the Pentagon, it is protected by the US Sixth Fleet, partnered by the US Fifth Fleet in the Gulf. Further, it is marked by a series of critical chokepoints, places where simple military action could block trade – the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosphorus, the Suez Canal and, at the mouth of the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab, as well as the Straits of Hormuz leading into the Gulf.

Beyond that, the United States is forced to prioritize its concerns about the Middle East despite itself because of its anxieties about oil. Unlike natural gas which is sold through a series of regional markets, the world’s oil market is truly global and oil is an eminently fungible commodity. This means that, not only is the United States a major oil importer (although not from the Persian Gulf), but its own domestic oil prices are also dependent on global price levels. And that affects fracking – the new technique that bids to force up American domestic oil production and reduce its import dependence; a major objective of all recent presidential administrations. If global prices fall, domestic production would soon be uneconomic; if they rise – as a result of instability in the Middle East, for instance – America’s domestic energy prices rise too, with all the unpleasant implications that has for political popularity and economic competitiveness.

The consequences of the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq force its continued engagement, despite the Obama administration’s attempt to extricate itself; past preferences and security engagements to Israel make disengagement impossible; and the memory of the Islamic revolution in 1979 propels antagonism to Iran and its own regional plans, quite apart from Washington’s anxieties over Iran’s nuclear ambitions which it considers linked to the creation of nuclear weapons despite Iranian protestations that its nuclear objectives are entirely peaceful in nature. Nor, indeed, can it ignore the interests of other powers in the region, especially if they are inimical to its own. Russia is clearly in that category, as, often, are its allies. It is this that makes the latest development in regional and global politics so interesting and potentially innovative.

Thus the American-Russian confrontation in the Middle East, especially over what is to happen over Syria, has been mirrored in the region by the confrontation between so-called regional moderates and extremists; Iran and its allies in Syria, Iraq and Hizbullah in Lebanon versus Saudi Arabia and its own acolytes in the Gulf, in Egypt and Jordan., together with Turkey. The confrontation also has a sectarian element as the allegedly moderate states are Sunni whereas the ‘extremists’ are predominantly Shi’a. In effect, therefore, regional alignments and global alignments represent both real regional conflicts and a much wider global constellation, a bifurcation that makes solutions far more difficult to attain as two quite different and even contradictory objectives have to be satisfied.

Syria and Iran

The crisis over Syria is an illustration of this policy dilemma as the arena for what has become known as the ‘Second Arab Cold War’ – the first occurred between Nassirist Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Yemen in the 1960s. At one level, as suggested above, it reflects a series of regional dichotomies: the ‘Shi’a arc of extremism’, to recall Tony Blair’s formulation, against the region’s moderates; Iran versus Saudi Arabia for control of oil and the Gulf; the growing polarization between Sunni and Shi’a; and Islamists (both extremist and moderate) versus secularists, not to speak of subsidiary challenges such as Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood against Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Salafists.

Yet, at another level, the crisis sets Russia and China against the United States and its European allies over quite different issues related to global roles as well as regional dominance. Western antagonism towards the Assad regime, now reified over the issue of chemical weapons, is challenged by Russian and Chinese views about the sanctity of sovereignty and profound distaste for regime change, particularly after the Libyan experience where, they believe, they were misled over the role of the United Nations Security Council. Western hesitancy over yet more intervention after the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq emboldens Russian and Chinese convictions that the uni-polarity and the hegemonic stability put in place in 1991 is slowly yielding to multi-polarity in which they both have independent roles to play.

Their convictions are reinforced by the stalemate over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme where rigorous Western economic sanctions have done little to dissuade Teheran from pursuing what it claims is its right to nuclear use for peaceful purposes. That alone is a clear statement about the sanctity of sovereignty that Russia and China endorse against the Western view of a globalised world in which universal norms and rules (which, in practice, the developing world believes the West alone dictates) operate.4  Yet, in reality, it is difficult to avoid the sentiment (certainly held by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamane’i) that Washington ultimately seeks regime change in Teheran as closure for the rejection it suffered during the Iranian revolution in 1979. In short the polarisation of the Middle East is not simply due to the intransigence of the region’s radical leaders – the usual explanation in the West – but also reflects an inveterate Western attempt to dictate regional policy against which Russia reacts with its own attempts to structure the region in its own interests.

Region and state

None of this is to deny that the Middle East has its own very real problems too. Once again the Syria crisis embodies a range of regional confrontations, as described above. Nor can the crisis be simply ignored by outside powers, threatening, as it does, to increasingly spread to neighbouring states – Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. However, there are no good options for engagement except the diplomatic route which America and Russia are now gingerly sampling and that will require concerted action by East and West, something which, in current circumstances, the West finds very difficult to imagine, despite its timid steps in that direction. The same is true of the crisis over Iran, for Teheran seeks engagement but only if its sovereign rights are recognized and that, too, Western powers in the 5P+1 group (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) seem to find impossible to contemplate, even though Iran could also contribute significantly to resolving both the Syrian and Afghani crises too. It is, after all, the major regional ally of the Assad regime in Syria and exercises significant influence amongst the Hazara in Western Afghanistan.

But there are other longstanding issues, too. Regional tensions, already extremely high as Iraq crumbles into new sectarian violence and the crisis in Syria worsens, are further stimulated by Israel’s willful refusal to attend to its own security crisis; the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the isolation of the Gaza Strip. Nor are the latest American attempts to force a settlement expected to produce viable results, largely because of the Quartet’s refusal to engage with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israeli rejection of its 1967 borders. Even though many moderate states would now accept any settlement acceptable to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, public opinion in the Arab world is as acutely conscious of the continuing injustice faced by Palestinians as ever. Compromise political solutions will not make the fact of Israel’s presence in the Middle East any more palatable at a popular level, whatever ruling elites may think.

Tied to this issue is another, much newer issue – the increasing radicalization of the region as its problems multiply and the parallel growth in political Islam as a normative view of political order. One reason for this is that Islam as a statement about collective order and culture is consonant with popular values, unlike those associated with representative democracy which is often seen as a Western import, despite its claimed universality. Yet, at the same time, the willingness of moderate Islamists to consider participating in pluralistic politics strongly suggests that the Middle East could produce its own democratic vision – the great promise of the Arab Awakening in 2011.5 Of course, the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiment in Egypt has tarnished Islam as a political ideology but Islamism is still involved in governance in Iran, Tunisia, Gaza and Morocco. And Saudi Arabia, after all, claims to be the ideal Islamic state and uses its own political export – Salafism – as a weapon against the Brotherhood. Furthermore, the Arab Awakening has challenged the whole question of regional governance and it will take many years before stability returns to the region, a stability that will be further delayed by the region’s global and regional crises.

Indeed, the issue of governance has been rendered an acute concern by the events of the last three years. Despite the setbacks, the Arab Awakening in 2011 has empowered populations and forced authoritarian regimes to recognize the power of popular unrest which they deny at their peril, as Libya and Syria have demonstrated. Of course, some regimes survived the experience – Morocco, Algeria, even Egypt – but the range and pace of change throughout the region, except in the Gulf where, apart from the crisis in Bahrain, oil could finance alternative compacts between ruler and ruled, represent a paradigm shift inside the region that cannot be reversed. And it was achieved without Western intervention, a factor that has been key in rendering the changes that have occurred legitimate. That, at least, is a cautious pointer towards optimism about the future but, perhaps, the only one. Otherwise the Middle East faces crises that are more confusing and complex than at any time since 1967 and the collapse of Nasirism.

It is against this background that the unexpected collaboration between Russia and the United States must be seen. Of course, it may all collapse in tears and anger – then the Cold War paradigm will reassert itself. Yet, if it does not and evolves into a mechanism through which the Syrian crisis can be resolved, it will mark the acceptance by the United States, reluctantly no doubt, of a new reality in international affairs; the recognition that Western assumptions of global moral, diplomatic and military hegemony has given way to a multi-polar world in which the promises of the end of the Cold War at the start of the 1990s might finally be realized. Given the complexities, both in global diplomacy and in terms of the security complexities of the Middle East, such an outcome may seem hopelessly optimistic but, given Western policy failures there during the past decade – Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria chief amongst them – it may be a more probable outcome than we realize.


  1. Mallaby S. (2002), “The reluctant imperialist: terror, failed states and the case for American empire,” Foreign Affairs81 (2); 2-9: Cooper R. (2002), “The new liberal imperialism,” The Observer Daily News (February 7, 2002)
  2. Khouri R., “New order being born in Geneva,” Daily Star (Beirut), September 14, 2013
  3. These arguments are more fully developed in Joffé G. (2013), The future of the Middle East and North Africa, (August 2013) NOREF (Oslo)
  4. Blair T. (2006), Speech to World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, August 1, 2006
  5. See Joffé G. (ed)(2011), Radicalisation in North Africa: politics and process, Routledge (London) and Joffé G. (ed)(2013), Radicalisation in Europe and the Middle East, IB Tauris (London)  See also Joffé G. (ed)(2013), North Africa’s ‘Arab Spring’, Routledge (London)