Middle east: an anatomy

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Robert Cox
Robert Cox

Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

Robert Cox is former Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998), former European Commission Representative to Turkey and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Western missile attacks on the chemical weapon facilities of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad obscure the fact that Europe is the most likely polity to eventually become victim of collateral damage from the Syrian conflict. For most of us in Europe – and elsewhere ‒ the Middle East defies capacity of understanding and encourages us to bury our collective heads in the sand.

A few, non-exclusive factors need to be recalled. Let’s start with two important ones that the media rarely mention.

The first is about rulers and ruled. In Syria, fragmented by an often baffling ‒ to the outsider at least ‒ array of different faiths, ethnicities and allegiances, President al-Assad heads a clan monopolising the formal reins of state power, propped up by Iran and Russia. His clan is essentially, but not exclusively, Alawite who make up 11% of Syria’s population according to the 1960 census, the last to ask Syrians their religion. Sunni, said that census, made up 70% of the population.

Today’s balance of religious proportion, despite the mainly Sunni exodus during seven years of horrendous war, is unlikely to differ much from that of 1960. So, a first conclusion is that al-Assad’s power base is precarious: he and the clique surrounding him have every reason to be terrified of losing power, they have no room for manoeuvre. To survive they apply the brutality of rats in a trap. But are al-Assad’s Iranian and Russian life-support backers a re-assuring prospect in the longer term? Much will depend on what happens in their own backyards.

Al-Assad and the clique surrounding him have every reason to be terrified of losing power

The second conclusion is about Russia, which is in Syria, backing al-Assad, for one overwhelming reason: Russia’s military bases are located in Hmeimim and Tartus. While they might prefer safer facilities in Cyprus and Greece, strategy and history call the shots – Syria hosts Russia’s prime military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. It is a logical extension of Russia’s centuries-old ambition to dip its military and political toes in warm water with a new window on the West. Historians know all this, and so should the western media and politicians.

These factors, each in their own way exclude almost any scope for immediate political movement in Syria.

Other factors of course bedevil understanding of the Middle East as a region. For Russia, a presence in Syria means it is again enforcing its role as a major geopolitical player. Russia is now also supposedly an ally of Turkey whose President Erdoğan sees in Syria and Iraq opportunities to break out of an imagined territorial stranglehold and vassaldom to the West inflicted on his country since the Ottoman collapse. While Turkey mishandles its Kurdish challenge and blunders on through an identity crisis, an endemic energy shortage prompts Ankara’s eyes on Mosul and its oilfields. And that Russia backs al-Assad whom Erdoğan loathes does not make this a re-assuring partnership for either player.

Iran remains one of the region’s big hitters. While Saudi Arabia may be making reformist headlines and vaunting its “crusade” against Iran-backed Shiadom, tension in Saudi-Arabia prevails between Wahhabists, recently ousted royals armed with big money, and a “wannabe” reformist Mohammad bin Salman, still out on a limb. Little makes it a match for Iran’s wealth of society, people, military skill and, well, history. Some in Riyadh count on revolt by Iran’s frustrated youth. Yet, they would do better to look at their own majority of population, which is under 30 years old.

And then there is Israel. New friend of Saudi Arabia but no friend of Palestine or Jordan, Israel is a key factor in underpinning some semblance of less anarchy in the Middle East. Its drive to expel remaining Palestinians beyond the Jordan border and replace them with increasingly ultraorthodox Jewish settlements bears the seeds of an uncertain future for the tattered Zionist dream. Let’s not forget the growing risk of direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran.

To top it all off, there are two other disruptive influences ‒¬ or lack thereof ‒ in the Middle East: an unpredictable US President who one day wants to pull out of the Middle East and then says maybe not; and the European Union, too obsessed with so-called “home” issues to have any credible influence on complex processes in the Middle East. A few one-off British and French missiles targeting Syrian chemical weapon facilities are not a policy.

Let’s not forget the growing risk of direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran

In a world rendered increasingly unstable by the power-mongering of the three effective superpowers – and a few of their sidekicks – Europe is vulnerable. The Eurozone remains a half-built house; major EU power Germany shows little appetite for Euro or defence related initiatives; east-west and north-south gaps in the EU undermine vision and solidarity. Europe’s political class, with a few exceptions such as French President Macron, seems to be only vaguely aware of the continent’s vulnerability.

Things are made worse still by the fact that one of Europe’s major components – and one of its two permanent UN Security Council members ‒ the United Kingdom, has chosen to break loose from the European Project, arguing that, on its own, it can thrive better in today’s world. The UK’s intellectually shrunk leadership fails to see the bigger issue of security in the world, blinded as it is by its domestic obsession with and bickering about Brexit, the geopolitical illusion of the 21st century.

Prime Minister May would do better to abstain from lecturing fellow EU leaders on security and confront the reckless pack in her own party and beyond, who stubbornly refuse to give security its rightful place in the Brexit agenda and will not accept that the security of the UK and the rest of Europe can only be built on the basis of strong, collective and all-embracing European political will.

Were this to happen, somebody in and around the Middle East might actually start listening.

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