TENSION HIGH IN GREATER MIDDLE EAST
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA, Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director, Research and Consultancy, INEGMA
06 Feb 13. Tension is high throughout the Greater Middle East region starting from Mauritania in North Africa all the way to Pakistan with terrorist attacks, uprisings and wars breaking out in various parts. There has never been a period in recent history where this region was so volatile. One might say it is nothing new to the troubled region. However, there are new factors that make this period different than what it was over the past decades. The most important one is the diminished role for the United States.
Looking closely at the situation in this region, starting with North Africa, the U.S. is hardly present in the most important battle on Al-Qaeda in Al-Maghreb with France leading the way in flushing the radical Islamic fighters from Mali. In the Levant, namely in Syria, Washington has rejected all calls for either intervention or assisting the rebels in their fight against an Iranian-backed regime, and has remained idle watching radical Islamic groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda establish a foothold in a highly strategic place like Syria. What is more astonishing to many observers is to see the Russian Navy move in full strength off the Syrian coastline conducting maneuvers and supplying arms to the Syrian regime. Even the Patriot missiles deployed under a NATO umbrella along the Turkish-Syrian borders are mostly supplied by European countries – Germany and the Netherlands. In the Arabian Gulf region the size of the U.S. fleet was reduced with the withdrawal of two aircraft carrier strike forces. Finally in Afghanistan the United States will soon start the drawdown of its forces that will lead for their full withdrawal by end of 2014.
As debate rages in the United States on sequestration – that could lead to $600-billion in defense budget cuts – observers in the Middle East wonder about the possible effect of this on the U.S. footprint in the region. U.S. allies in the region worry further when they hear American officials talk about their new priorities shifting towards Asia and the intention to reduce involvement in the Middle East. Significantly, this will feed into the Iranian propaganda that the United States is a fading power and Tehran will be the new rising dominant power in the region. Overall, Iran is likely to be very happy and deem the Islamic Republic’s multi-year strategy of removing the U.S. from the region as a success, giving Tehran a needed boost as Syria falls into political chaos. For many years, the administration of President Mahmood Ahmadinejad, repeatedly called for the U.S. to leave the region, specifically the Gulf, and allow the countries of the region to guarantee their own security and to create a new Gulf security architecture minus America.
The United States and its allies have been locked in a Cold War with Iran and its axis allies in the Middle East. While Washington’s Arab allies have been waiting to see whether U.S. predictions of the Iranian regime collapsing under the weight of economic sanctions, they are surprised to see the U.S. about to pull out due to economic strains and change in foreign policy priorities. This will be a big shock to a region that only ten years ago had over 200 thousand U.S. soldiers deployed in it, and hardly any presence of Russian or Chinese naval vessels. The situation now can best be described as moving from the extreme interventionist policies of the George W. Bush Administration to the extreme non-interventionist policies of the Barak Obama Administration that has been branded as “leading from behind,” while some regional officials have called it “isolationist” policies. There must be a middle ground where the U.S. could lead collective efforts on the ground rather than intervene unilaterally or exclude itself completely.
There are regional concerns that there appears to be a new school of thought rising in Was