A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse
Henry A. Kissinger
With Russia in Syria, a geopolitical structure that lasted four decades is in shambles. The U.S. needs a new strategy and priorities.
The debate about whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran regarding its nuclear program stabilized the Middle East’s strategic framework had barely begun when the region’s geopolitical framework collapsed. Russia’s unilateral military action in Syria is the latest symptom of the disintegration of the American role in stabilizing the Middle East order that emerged from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.
In the aftermath of that conflict, Egypt abandoned its military ties with the Soviet Union and joined an American-backed negotiating process that produced peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, a United Nations-supervised disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria, which has been observed for over four decades (even by the parties of the Syrian civil war), and international support of Lebanon’s sovereign territorial integrity. Later, Saddam Hussein’s war to incorporate Kuwait into Iraq was defeated by an international coalition under U.S. leadership. American forces led the war against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States were our allies in all these efforts. The Russian military presence disappeared from the region.
That geopolitical pattern is now in shambles. Four states in the region have ceased to function as sovereign. Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq have become targets for nonstate movements seeking to impose their rule. Over large swaths in Iraq and Syria, an ideologically radical religious army has declared itself the Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL) as an unrelenting foe of established world order. It seeks to replace the international system’s multiplicity of states with a caliphate, a single Islamic empire governed by Shariah law.
ISIS’ claim has given the millennium-old split between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam an apocalyptic dimension. The remaining Sunni states feel threatened by both the religious fervor of ISIS as well as by Shiite Iran, potentially the most powerful state in the region. Iran compounds its menace by presenting itself in a dual capacity. On one level, Iran acts as a legitimate Westphalian state conducting traditional diplomacy, even invoking the safeguards of the international system. At the same time, it organizes and guides nonstate actors seeking regional hegemony based on jihadist principles: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria; Hamas in Gaza; the Houthis in Yemen.
Thus the Sunni Middle East risks engulfment by four concurrent sources: Shiite-governed Iran and its legacy of Persian imperialism; ideologically and religiously radical movements striving to overthrow prevalent political structures; conflicts within each state between ethnic and religious groups arbitrarily assembled after World War I into (now collapsing) states; and domestic pressures stemming from detrimental political, social and economic domestic policies.
The fate of Syria provides a vivid illustration: What started as a Sunni revolt against the Alawite (a Shiite offshoot) autocrat Bashar Assad fractured the state into its component religious and ethnic groups, with nonstate militias supporting each warring party, and outside powers pursuing their own strategic interests. Iran supports the Assad regime as the linchpin of an Iranian historic dominance stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The Gulf States insist on the overthrow of Mr. Assad to thwart Shiite Iranian designs, which they fear more than Islamic State. They seek the defeat of ISIS while avoiding an Iranian victory. This ambivalence has been deepened by the nuclear deal, which in the Sunni Middle East is widely interpreted as tacit American acquiescence in Iranian hegemony.
These conflicting trends, compounded by America’s retreat from the region, have enabled Russia to engage in military operations deep in the Middle East, a deployment unprecedented in Russian history. Russia’s principal concern is that the Assad regime’s collapse could reproduce the chaos of Libya, bring ISIS into power in Damascus, and turn all of Syria into a haven for terrorist operations, reaching into Muslim regions inside Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
On the surface, Russia’s intervention serves Iran’s policy of sustaining the Shiite element in Syria. In a deeper sense, Russia’s purposes do not require the indefinite continuation of Mr. Assad’s rule. It is a classic balance-of-power maneuver to divert the Sunni Muslim terrorist threat from Russia’s southern border region. It is a geopolitical, not an ideological, challenge and should be dealt with on that level. Whatever the motivation, Russian forces in the region—and their participation in combat operations—produce a challenge that American Middle East policy has not encountered in at least four decades.
American policy has sought to straddle the motivations of all parties and is therefore on the verge of losing the ability to shape events. The U.S. is now opposed to, or at odds in some way or another with, all parties in the region: with Egypt on human rights; with Saudi Arabia over Yemen; with each of the Syrian parties over different objectives. The U.S. proclaims the determination to remove Mr. Assad but has been unwilling to generate effective leverage—political or military—to achieve that aim. Nor has the U.S. put forward an alternative political structure to replace Mr. Assad should his departure somehow be realized.
Russia, Iran, ISIS and various terrorist organizations have moved into this vacuum: Russia and Iran to sustain Mr. Assad; Tehran to foster imperial and jihadist designs. The Sunni states of the Persian Gulf, Jordan and Egypt, faced with the absence of an alternative political structure, favor the American objective but fear the consequence of turning Syria into another Libya.
The article’s full-text is available on the website henryakissinger.com
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