LONDON – For Western policymakers the Middle East remains a nightmare of complexity, second only to North Korea as a threat to global security. The situation stays as confused as ever. It is dangerous to be involved, but equally dangerous to leave.
As experts are fond of warning, everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else. At the time of the so-called Arab Spring the dream was that, with tyrants overthrown, liberty and democracy would spread their wings. But nothing like that has happened. Many of those in the West who called themselves experts in Arab affairs were completely wrong-footed.
Amid a shifting tangle of alliances and rivalries all the countries involved now face major dilemmas in their policy goals and stances — although the dilemmas differ in every case. No unified approach to these issues is either possible or practicable, given the wide variety of circumstances, the fragmentation of old power centers, the rise of nonstate movements, cells and rebel militia groupings on all sides.
In Syria, the resultant turmoil and pulverizing violence is at its most visible, with the country torn at least three ways, with the Bashar Assad regime, still clinging on with Russian and Iranian support (plus help from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Iranian surrogate), with the various Syrian rebel forces opposing the regime, partially backed by Western powers, and with the hideous death cult of the Islamic State group still entrenched.
In Iraq, the battle drags on to evict branches of the same IS forces, the self-styled caliphate, from Mosul, while the whole country remains precariously divided between the Shiite and Sunni sects. Here the Western powers, including American and British special forces, Iranian brigades, Turkish armed forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and countless others find themselves on the same side — temporarily of course. In other areas the Turks regard the Kurds as deadly enemies, though they are backed by both American and British support.
That’s a problem because America, the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe want to keep Turkey broadly westward-oriented, and members of NATO, when all the signs are of an increasingly dominant and empowered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaning toward Russia. But then Turkey opposes Assad and Iran, while the Russians are backing Assad and Iran is helping to fight IS.
These are just a few of the head-spinning contradictions on the surface. But deeper down there are much more fundamental shifts going on.
First, no one is sure which way U.S. President Donald Trump’s Washington is going to jump. Hopes are growing that he may be less erratic than feared. First Trump was going to stay clear of the whole bewildering region. Then the aim was going to crush IS, with the help of Assad, and maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin. Next it was punishing Assad with Tomahawk missiles for allowing dreadful chemical weapons to slaughter Syrian women and children.
Second, there are the fabulously rich oil-producing Gulf states. Their most feared enemy is Iran, and the U.K. in particular is their traditional friend. But the U.K., along with France, strongly favors the proposed deal to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program and generally open up friendlier relations with Iran — a tricky dilemma, made trickier still because Trump may be turning away from the whole Iran weapons deal, thereby posing yet more dilemmas for his friends in Europe and incidentally also for Iran itself where opinions are sharply divided and a key election is just coming up.
Third — another dilemma — Trump has doubts about the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, while the U.K., among others, believes the two-state path is the only realistic one.
Meanwhile Jordan and Lebanon are being shaken to their foundations by flows of refugees from Syria on an unprecedented scale.
Then there’s Saudi Arabia, the oil giant, torn by internal religious pressures. Like the other Gulf oil producers these days the Saudis are looking increasingly eastward for their markets and support, as well as ruminating on the day when demand for their oil falls away as American shale production soars and green pressures grow. Somehow, dependence on oil and gas revenues has to cease. To the Saudi south, Yemen stays trapped in a bloody stalemate
The ubiquitous Chinese presence is another new factor (they are the biggest oil investors in Iraq) and their vast “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure ambitions reach into the heart of the region.
Meanwhile again, there is Egypt, one of the giants of the region — at least in population terms — ruled by the military but tugged between the West and Russia, facing economic ruin and vicious internal security threats, not least against the significant Christian (Coptic) minority.
Next to Egypt sits Libya, torn to pieces by rival governments. Further along the North African coastline comes Algeria, once more facing rising Islamic extremism and political instability. Only little Tunisia, and skillfully governed Morocco further west, are successfully holding off constant jihadi threats.
Add finally, revolutionary communications technology has everywhere in the Arab world and Northwest Africa empowered a new generation of young people — 60 percent of them under the age of 30.
In short, a totally new and totally different Middle East from anything that has gone before now confronts the world. It is unstable, uncertain, divided and volatile.
New conditions require new approaches. Western assumptions going back years about the region, and how to engage with it, need to be revised from the ground up.
This past week, a key House of Lords Parliamentary Committee in London published a major new report based on months of inquiry into the changed conditions of the region, titled “The Middle East: Time for New Realism.”
New realism is indeed urgently required. But will anybody take much notice, given the international community’s preoccupation with elections, Brexit and a dozen other domestic crises? Who knows? But in the end it could prove wise to think afresh, since Middle East crises have a tendency to spread out to engulf everybody, and by then it will be much too late.
Thus the current policies of the major powers inside the region, to take these first, are riddled with contradictions.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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