As though the Middle East needed more crises or more wars, the region was brought to a perilous brink following the US assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A close associate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Suleimani also oversaw Iranian political, military and intelligence operations in the Arab region. Also killed in the same attack was Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the Iraqi-Iranian military commander of the Iraqi Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
With this action, coming on top of its many predecessors since the launch of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and especially since Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear accord and initiated a policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran, Washington and Tehran have begun to circle each other in the ring, bearing their teeth and notching up pressures and threats as they brandish both military and economic weapons. The crisis reached a peak during the funeral for Suleimani in Tehran.
Attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners, it was a gauge of the pressures that would compel the Iranian regime to undertake massive retaliatory measures against US military and civilian targets in the region as well as those of US allies in the Middle East. Even domestic security agencies in the US braced themselves for possible terrorist attacks. Washington’s response could be anticipated. Trump said that the US military had identified 52 possible targets it would strike if Americans were hurt.
To back up the threat, a squadron of B-52 bombers from Barksdale Air Force Base were deployed to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Washington also said it would send another 5,000 soldiers to the region, of which more than 3,000 have already been sent, including 200 Special Forces, bringing the total number of US forces in the Middle East up to 80,000.
While the eastern Arab world stood at the precipice, Turkey created another crisis to the west when it signed a maritime border MoU and a security agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The agreements paved the way for the deployment of Turkish military forces in Libya in order to repel and defeat the Libyan National Army (LNA). That crisis reached a peak when the Turkish parliament ratified the agreements with Tripoli and the Turkish president announced his plans to send the Turkish army to Libya. This presented grave challenges for Egypt which may be compelled to support the LNA or take other actions to counter a possible direct threat to Egyptian borders using Turkish forces or various terrorist organisations.
With all the tensions and still open wounds in the Gulf, especially those caused by Iranian and Houthi attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and with Turkish forces near Egyptian borders and Egyptian facilities and resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, the region as a whole grew extremely fraught. As the US, Iran, Turkey, the two sides in the Libyan conflict and other parties directly involved the crises, have busily amassed their weapons and mobilised their resources, observers could not escape the conclusion that war is immanent, while social networking platforms quickly abounded with scenarios of how war would break out and, moreover, how it would spiral into World War III!
Fortunately, this region, which was buffeted by the so-called Arab Spring, has enough “cool heads” with experience in handling situations that, if left unchecked, would yield catastrophic results. Rational thinking was exhibited in the customary solidarity between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE and in efforts to form a diplomatic and political bloc that included the other countries party to the Iranian nuclear agreement (China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Italy) and that were determined to halt the escalation and avert war.
Simultaneously, as the main parties faced looming disaster, they realised that the costs of war were unsustainable. Iran, crippled by years of harsh economic sanctions, has recently been stunned by a form of grassroots uprising that brought the Supreme Leader face to face with the Iranian people. Also, despite its denials, Iran knows that the similar uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon were inspired by a rejection of the influence of Iran and its proxies in these two countries. The US, for its part, has entered an election year. In all events, as everyone knows, Trump’s threats always hold out the prospect of a “deal” and, ultimately, he entered the White House on the promise to end America’s endless wars, so he has no intent to start another one.
As for Turkey, Moscow holds the key. Firstly, Moscow and Turkey are closely intertwined in Syria, in the “safe zone”, in the Astana process which also includes Iran, and in the de-escalation arrangements that stemmed from that process. Also, Russia now rivals the US as a source of arms for Turkey. Secondly, Moscow had major interests in Libya in the Gaddafi era and, today, it has close relations with Field Marshal Haftar and the LNA, and it is looking forward to a similar relationship with the government that is eventually established in Libya. Thirdly, Moscow is also on good terms with Iran. The two have worked closely together on Syria through the Astana process and in Syria itself.
Recently Russia, China and Iran held naval manoeuvres in the Gulf. As the situations to the east and west of the Arab world reached a head, Russia played an important diplomatic role in Putin’s meeting with Erdogan on 8 January, and in the Iranian rises when it condemned the US assassination of Suleimani and simultaneously called on Washington and Iran to de-escalate.
In general, international crises follow familiar paths. They start with the break from business as usual to threats, to mobilisation and mustering the domestic front, to brinksmanship and increasing likelihood of recourse to arms. From there, the crises can proceed in one of two directions. Either the two sides can back away from the brink and ready themselves for negotiations, or at least cap their tensions, or they can go to war, which has its own dynamics.
The Middle East has been through all these phases. But most recently, it stepped back from the abyss when Iran fired a missile that harmed no one at the US bases in Iraq in retaliation for the Suleimani assassination and when Turkey decided to limit its military presence in Libya to advisers and trainers and, jointly with Russia, called for a ceasefire in Libya and for renewed talks between the Libyan factions.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly