Dangerous liaisons in the Middle East: forget friends and foes; say hello to enemy of my enemy

Instability in the Middle East region has never been more complex than in these past 2 years, which have proven – if that was even necessary – that fragmentation can lead to a chaotic climate. Like the motion of the atoms, sometimes impossible to predict, the dramatic unfolding of events in Syria and Iraq has lead to peculiar short-term alliances. Understanding what is going on is crucial for Europe’s security in the near future.

The conflict in Syria began slowly during the Arab Spring, in 2011 consuming lives and recourses like any civil war would do, especially if spiced up with some new type of radical fighters. Meanwhile, Iraq was a mess – with a post-war violence surging so much that the economy and stability could not show any kind of recovery.

Things continued in a similar manner, yet without important developments, until the very interesting spring and summer of 2014 when new events established the premises of the current situation. Russia invaded Crimea and prompted an urban guerilla type of civil war in Eastern Ukraine, causing the Western world (the EU and NATO) to engage in sanctions and to acknowledge the new power ambitions of their neighbouring superpower. Iranians chose a new and more moderate president – Hassan Rouhani in 2013– which started a clever PR campaign next year in order to get the sanctions lifted for his country, which was sinking in debt and growing economic and social struggles. It’s worth remembering that Iranians and Russia were providing military aid to the Damascus regime led by Bashar al Assad, and maintained their indisputable support for the Syrian president, from the start until present times.

This stable love triangle between Syria, Russia and Iran is not hard to understand given the fact that Russia needed to become the no 1 voice in the Middle East affairs, a region where for the past 2 decades the US was handling business, including military permutations. Iran managed to reach the famous nuclear deal this year, getting the economic sanctions lifted and suddenly (but not unexpectedly) it started feeling revived well enough to make a comeback as a regional power. Like a fine merchant, during that special summer of 2014, Iran offered support to the Iraqi government to stop ISIS taking over Baghdad and the whole country. So, look at Iran how nicely it danced its way out of the dark corner of history, convincing the no 1 foe, US, to lift sanctions and start a new chapter in a complicated relationship. Teheran is involved in the fight against the jihadists both in Syria, with the Syrian and Russian armies and also in Iraq, with the Iraqi army and US coalition. For one “noble purpose”, of course: becoming a regional power.

Syrian regime also has had support from neighbouring Lebanese Hezbollah, which actively engages in military provocations with Israel. Last week, Russia, who now holds the keys to the Syrian conflict, has adamantly warned Hezbollah to stop any military attacks on Israel, in order not to stir more tensions next to already boiling Syria. Even though Hezbollah and Russia are on the same side in the Syrian conflict so against the US allies, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu turned to president Putin months ago to ensure its goodwill towards Israel. The Kremlin Tsar’s actions show his positive response towards Israeli officials demands, to guarantee security, yet it would be interesting to know what is the real price for this favour? One can only wait and see.

The small Jewish state has also actively lobbied against Iran becoming a rising power, openly arguing that Iran has vowed to destroy Israel. The Israeli government has failed to prevent the Iranian deal, so it turned to its old enemy, Saudi Arabia, which was, without doubt, the most adverse Islamic theocracy towards Israel (and any kind of progressive nation for that matter). This is the perfect illustration of the regional saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The very strange alliance between Israel and the Saudi Kingdom (which does not recognise the existence of a Jewish state), 2 countries that have no diplomatic relations, has its roots also in the summer of 2014. Besides the Iranian problem – neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia want Iran to keep rising in the Middle East – the two former foes have a very convergent issue since then: losing their preferential status with Washington. They still remain key allies of the United States, yet the there is an obvious rift regarding American foreign policy in the Middle East. Israel security specialist, Dore Gold, who wrote a book 12 years ago, “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism”, became chief negotiator of the Israeli – Saudi duo, several months ago. Ironic and hard to digest? Maybe so, but as things are rapidly unfolding in the region, convergent interests are good enough reasons to find any partner.

Last but not least, we have the 2016 surprise: Turkey. Sure, given its geographic position and religious background, as well as being a former supreme ruler over all Middle East, during the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was actively meddling in Syria, against the Assad regime since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Yet, this summer, after a failed military coup against president Erdogan, Turkey became an almost unreliable NATO ally, for the first time in 6 decades. Ankara’s Sultan insisted his NATO allies are betraying him and abruptly turned to former foe, Vladimir Putin, after 10 months of incredible tensions between Moscow and Ankara. Syria’s instability stirred trouble for Turkey, with a growing number of terrorist attacks and also military missile bombing scaring tourists away and sending a warning message to Europe. While Erdogan is turning to Russia even though NATO and the Kremlin are entering the New Cold War, one must never forget that the Turkish president constantly argued against Bashar al Assad and his regime, while logistically supporting armed “rebels“ in Syria; in direct opposition to Russia.

Turkey’s second largest problem is the Kurdish issue. In the summer of 2014, the Iraqi Kurds – which are autonomous- bravely stopped ISIS’s expansion and have since then fought against the jihadists, drawing world attention on them – a Middle East 15 million nation without a state. There was even talk of a Kurdish state with land pieces from Iraq and Syria, which enraged Turkey, which has a significantly Kurdish minority to which it refuses to grant more rights. Therefore, Turkey is fighting in Syria against Kurdish groups and has even made an open offer to get involved in the Mosul offensive in Iraq. Reason why: mostly to stop Kurdish expansion or Kurds acquiring a greater role in the offensive against ISIS, which might get them a state.

There is no mistake in agreeing upon the current state of the Middle East: a spider net of interests, both economic and religious, but most of all of fight for dominance in the region. This is the case for most of the state-actors involved. While for the two superpowers, US and Russia, Pandora’s box has been open and the world will probably witness a dangerous chess game.

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