This year is seeing the most drastic reshaping of the geopolitics of the Middle East possibly since WW2. Certainly since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Everything is in flux. Russia and Iran are pushing out the U.S. and NATO in Syria, Iran is already leading the Shiite war effort in Iraq, and the Iraqi government is now considering inviting military assistance from Russia against ISIS as well. This after the hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. has spent on the country. Across the entire Fertile Crescent, the U.S. and its allies are being almost entirely marginalized. As are their interests.
Further to the South, lay the traditional allies of the U.S. in the region: Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These alliances still hold – for now. Though there is obviously no love lost between the U.S. and these countries. None of the governments of these countries now trust the U.S. The Egyptian government is still caught up in the ambivalence of the West between its desire for democracy in the region and its desire for stability and for secular governance. The détente between the U.S. and Iran on the Iranians’ nuclear program has led to Saudi alarm. And the Israelis are hunkering down in their metaphorical bunker as the world around them descends into chaos, and the flames of war are starting to spread to the occupied territories.
When the Middle East became destabilized in the wake of the Arab Spring, the others pounced
To the east, Afghanistan is once again in total chaos, with the Taliban emerging as the most likely group to prevail in the country. And Pakistan, formerly the U.S.’s most reliable ally in the region, is being absorbed into the Chinese sphere of influence with the help, once again, of the Iranians. In fact, one could argue, the entire East is being reshaped geopolitically according to the needs of Chinese commerce: pipelines from Russia to China, pipelines from Iran to Pakistan paid for by the Chinese, railways and road infrastructure built by the Chinese in South East Asia in Myanmar to connect them to the deep water port in Kyaukpyu, to the south west with the trade corridor through Pakistan to connect them to the deep water port of Gwadar, and across the whole of Central Asia, as China is rebuilding the Silk Road.
Russia, Iran and China are muscling in on the Middle East, and so far it seems that the U.S. and Europe have neither the capacity, nor the will, to do anything about it. The American Century, at least in the Middle East, seems well and truly over. How did it come to this?
For one, the U.S. has taken the eye off the ball. Invading Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 could have perhaps worked, on its own. The U.S. was able to bring its allies along, and there was a great deal of good will towards the American war aims at the time. But all that was squandered with the insane decision to also invade Iraq. That war clearly overstretched U.S. forces and allowed Iran, Russia and eventually China to flex their muscles in their regional spheres of influence against U.S. interests.
The initial response of the Obama administration to the catastrophic consequences of the Bush-era warmongering was to pursue a more liberal, international law approach to geo-politics. It was the only way that the U.S. could have sustained its status in the international arena. But by then it was already too late. The U.S. had long lost the moral authority to call on other countries to obey international norms, and no longer had the strength to enforce even a semblance of international law. Its rivals had smelled blood and tasted success. And so, when the Middle East became destabilized in the wake of the Arab Spring, the others pounced. And now, China is carving up the East, Russia the Levant, and Iran every country in its neighborhood and around the Jordan River.
Just how the situation will look when the dust settles it is impossible to know. But it is almost certain that there will be very little room left for the U.S. or its European allies in the region. And with that, our access to oil and gas will never be safe or secure ever again. Transitioning to alternative sources of energy is no longer just a matter for the Climate Change “hippies”. It should be the highest priority even for the most hawkish neo-conservatives.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.