The political and military situation in the Middle East does not stop changing. Keeping track of the changes is not easy. The new often mingles with the old and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between enemy, adversary and rival. There is nothing novel about this difficulty in this region, but it is still important to try to keep track, in spite of the confusions and overlaps.
The state of the Middle East in the period after the so-called Arab Spring was shaped, politically and strategically, by two notions. The first is that the contradictions and conflicts within the state are more severe and enduring than any regional conflicts. Civil warfare has proliferated in the region, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen being the most familiar examples.
In other countries, spiralling tensions necessitated outside intervention, as occurred in Bahrain, or the armed forces had to step in and assume control, as was the case in Egypt. In all cases, the fraught and violent interplay within the country had political, economic, sectarian and doctrinal manifestations. Outside influences were contingent on dominant domestic parties and their ability to muster support, mobilise and deploy.
The second notion is that the state, probably as the result of the foregoing, became less effective as a primary actor in regional relations. There emerged other, non-state actors: the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and its kin from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS) group. What all these “actors” have in common is that they used the state as a vehicle to promote their own ends.
Some even had their own particular ideas about the concept of the state and, in fact, one of them — IS — created its “caliphate state” straddling the borders of Iraq and Iran in defiance of political geography that had taken root in the region since World War I. One cannot help but to be struck by how unity in creed and ideological extremism failed to prevent violence and bloodshed between Al-Qaeda and IS and between those two organisations and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Eventually, the civil wars in the Middle East arrived at junctures that were called “de-escalation”, “restoration of stability” or “ceasefire”. In virtually all cases, complex diplomatic processes were put into play, involving regional powers as well as the US, Russia and the UN.
At the same time, the terrorist non-state actors were being driven back. The Muslim Brotherhood lost its main base in Egypt. Al-Qaeda was chased out of many areas. More recently, IS suffered a total defeat with the loss of its geographic seat and the terminal decline of its so-called Islamic caliphate.
Nevertheless, these actors, themselves, have not been entirely eliminated. They are still active in the region. What has happened is that the state recovered and begun to reassert itself once more.
The US-aided victory over IS in Iraq gave the Iraqi state the new vigour it needed in order to manage the crisis with the Kurds at the time of the Kurdish independence referendum. The referendum won in the polls, but the independence bid failed and the Kurds returned to the negotiating table.
Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria was suspended from the Arab League and ending Baathist rule was a fundamental principle in all negotiating proposals. With Russian assistance, the Syrian government has returned to the fore at home and abroad and, for the first time, the Americans and Russians agreed that Syria needed to survive as a sovereign state. The form and substance of that state is another question — one to be resolved at the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, non-Arab regional powers have increased the degrees of their military intervention in the Arab region. Initially, Iran relied towards this end on cross-border actors, using the Shia doctrinal affiliation and the sectarian dimension, as can be seen with the People’s Mobilisation Units in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Now, Iran no longer just supports and assists local players. It is on the ground with its Revolutionary Guards in order to create a military corridor across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, so as to acquire a border with Israel.
The purpose of this is not just to be able to play defender of the Palestinian cause again, but also to create some leverage to use against the US to compel Washington to change its stance toward Tehran and the nuclear deal.
Turkey, too, began to intervene militarily for purposes of its own during the war against IS. Ankara has allocated some of its forces to weaken Kurdish forces that are fighting IS but which offer safe spaces and supplies to the PKK, which Turkey regards as a terrorist organisation. With the defeat of IS, Turkey’s political geography has induced it to augment its military intervention and belligerency in the service of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s notion of Turkish national security.
This helps explain the Turkish military offensive against Afrin and, at the same time, its attempt to intervene in the context of natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara rejects the Egyptian-Cypriot maritime borders agreement and has attempted to forcefully prevent the Italian-based ENI oil and gas company from continuing with its exploration activities in that area.
Gradually the Middle East returned to where it was before, when political geographical factors dominated the question of security in the region. The Yemeni civil war is no longer a domestic war. It is the product of Iranian influence, which is being countered by the Arab coalition under the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Israel, for its part, after years of rejoicing in what befell the other countries in the region, found itself looking at an unfamiliar Syria.
That changed Syria was the backdrop of the incident of the Iranian drone, the bombardment of an Iranian military base, followed by the downing of an Israeli jet. Syria is no longer about Al-Nusra Front, IS or the Muslim Brotherhood. It is about the Israeli-Iranian confrontation over who rapes Syria, first, and Lebanon into the bargain.
Egypt has always adopted a different approach to the use of military force. For Cairo, it is a means to convey explicit security-related messages, to draw red lines and give clear and unequivocal signals.
The Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS 2018) was an opportunity to signal that Egypt is not only determined to eliminate the remnants of terrorist organisations in Sinai, but also that it rejects any Turkish intervention against an agreement grounded in international maritime law and the international recognition of the state of Cyprus.
The Egyptian navy, which is participating in ensuring maritime security for COS 2018, staged manoeuvres in which surface-to-sea and sea-to-sea missiles were fired, precisely in order to deliver the message to those whom it may concern in Ankara.
All these regional movements are informed by the region’s political geography as shaped by the current conditions in 2018. On one hand, we find the consequences of the Iranian nuclear deal intertwining with the election of a new US president who is disposed to suspect Iranian intentions.
On the other hand, there is the interplay over the reality of natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean and, specifically, the Zohr field in the Egyptian economic zone which has already begun production.
Political geography, with all its security and economic ramifications, has begun to assert itself once more in a region in which national interests have been redefined, making the Middle East of 2018 a different place from what it had been in 2011. Let’s wait and see what political and military developments this will bring.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly