The Middle East on the edge of a volcano

Alieddeen Hilal, Tuesday 30 Jan 2024

The Middle East may be sitting on the edge of a volcano, as underlying tensions increasingly issue into open conflict and ongoing Civil War, writes Alieddeen Hilal


The title of this article is borrowed from the first book by the prominent Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, which was published in 1951 under the title “Iran on a Volcano.”

The book was written in the context of the then-Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalising the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Iran, leading to a confrontation between his government and the Shah. The confrontation ended with the Shah leaving the country, followed by a conspiracy orchestrated by US intelligence that ousted Mossadegh and reinstated him.

A “volcano” is a geological phenomenon referring to interactions that occur beneath the Earth’s surface, resulting in molten lava, ash, gases, and vapours erupting through cracks or vents. When we apply this as a metaphor to understand the political developments around us, it suggests that accumulated tensions over an extended period can manifest themselves in explosive events, such as are now taking place in the Middle East. This creates an atmosphere of instability and the fear of the geographical expansion or qualitative escalation of conflicts.

The conflicts in the region are diverse and interconnected. At their core is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which evokes deep emotions that are not limited to Arabs and Muslims but extend to people worldwide who have been protesting against the current Israeli aggression against Gaza and in defence of Palestinian rights.

The repercussions of this conflict have ignited other fronts, including between Israel and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah on the Lebanese-Israeli border, missile launches from Syria and Iraq against Israel and US military bases in both countries, and attacks by the Houthi group in Yemen (the Ansarullah movement) on ships in the Red Sea.

In response, Israel has expanded the theatre of war, launching missiles and drones against its adversaries in Lebanon and Syria and carrying out the assassinations of Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leaders. The US has followed a similar path, attacking military bases associated with the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces in Baghdad, conducting military operations against the Houthis in Yemen alongside Britain, and forming an international coalition for this purpose and designating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation.

Both Iran and Turkey have employed military force to achieve their goals. Iran has indirectly intervened through its affiliated parties and proxy organisations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It has also intervened directly by sending the warship Al-Boraz to the Bab Al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea on 1 January and launching missile strikes against Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and Telita in the Idlib Province of Syria.

It has justified these actions as retaliation against elements of the Islamic State (IS) and the Turkistan Islamic Party that it has accused of orchestrating the explosions that took place in the city of Kerman south of Tehran on 3 January. Another strike targeted Pakistan and was directed against supporters of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army group, prompting an immediate Pakistani counter-strike against the group’s supporters inside Iran.

Turkey has utilised military force in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish army has carried out airstrikes on various areas in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, claiming that they are strongholds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, classified by Turkey as a terrorist organisation and responsible for bombings in the country. Turkey has also struck Kurdish areas in northwest Syria, with the country’s President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan, threatening to destroy Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the region stretching from Tel Rifaat to Ain Al-Arab and from Hassakeh to Manbij.

There have been other military clashes that have been given less media attention, among them the incident on the Jordan-Syria border where the Jordanian army conducted multiple airstrikes to target drug farms and hideouts in the villages of Malih and Arman in southern Sweida in Syria. On one occasion, a ground raid was carried out on these hideouts, leading to the arrest of individuals involved in the cultivation, manufacture, and sale of drugs. The Jordanian military intervention came after diplomatic channels with Damascus had been exhausted.

Ongoing internal or civil wars have persisted for a decade or more in the region, as can be seen in the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The conflict that has been taking place in Sudan since April last year between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces illustrates the inability of Arab and international parties to help reach a peaceful settlement.

Political tensions exist within states, such as in the situation in Lebanon, and between states, such as the Algerian-Moroccan dispute, or among several states, as seen in the tensions regarding Syrian refugees. In Turkey, there are increasing demands to repatriate them to their home country. In Lebanon, some MPs are urging people to use the country’s “Belghi” platform to report any refugees entering Lebanon illegally. The foreign minister of Cyprus has urged the European Union to reassess the security situation in Syria in order to identify safe areas as a prelude to the repatriation of refugees, pointing out that Cyprus faces the largest migration problem in the EU.

As if all this were not enough, a new conflict has arisen after the Ethiopian government announced an agreement on 1 January with the leader of the secessionist Somaliland region of Somalia to lease an area of 20 square km near the port of Berbera for 50 years to establish an Ethiopian port on the Red Sea. This agreement violates the Charter of the African Union (AU), which emphasises respect for the borders of the African countries and prohibits interference in other countries or dealing with secessionist entities.

The Ethiopian agreement poses a security threat to Somalia and creates a focal point of tension in the Horn of Africa region. The Somali president recently visited Egypt, seeking military and security support.

What these events tell us and what they indicate from regional and international perspectives will be discussed in next week’s article.


The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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