Robert Malley in this article titled The Unwanted Wars published in September / October 2019 of Foreign Affairs gives some answers to this question that has been marauding everyone for millennia. Why the Middle East Is More Combustible Than Ever, would, sarcasm apart, be a good start to try to understand the multi-layered mess of all past and passing powers. Here are some excerpts of the article.
The war that now looms largest is a war nobody apparently wants. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump railed against the United States’ entanglement in Middle Eastern wars, and since assuming office, he has not changed his tune. Iran has no interest in a wide-ranging conflict that it knows it could not win. Israel is satisfied with calibrated operations in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza but fears a larger confrontation that could expose it to thousands of rockets. Saudi Arabia is determined to push back against Iran, but without confronting it militarily. Yet the conditions for an all-out war in the Middle East are riper than at any time in recent memory.
A conflict could break out in any one of a number of places for any one of a number of reasons. Consider the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities: it could theoretically have been perpetrated by the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group, as part of their war with the kingdom; by Iran, as a response to debilitating U.S. sanctions; or by an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq. If Washington decided to take military action against Tehran, this could in turn prompt Iranian retaliation against the United States’ Gulf allies, an attack by Hezbollah on Israel, or a Shiite militia operation against U.S. personnel in Iraq. Likewise, Israeli operations against Iranian allies anywhere in the Middle East could trigger a regionwide chain reaction. Because any development anywhere in the region can have ripple effects everywhere, narrowly containing a crisis is fast becoming an exercise in futility.
When it comes to the Middle East, Tip O’Neill, the storied Democratic politician, had it backward: all politics—especially local politics—is international. In Yemen, a war pitting the Houthis, until not long ago a relatively unexceptional rebel group, against a debilitated central government in the region’s poorest nation, one whose prior internal conflicts barely caught the world’s notice, has become a focal point for the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. It has also become a possible trigger for deeper U.S. military involvement. The Syrian regime’s repression of a popular uprising, far more brutal than prior crackdowns but hardly the first in the region’s or even Syria’s modern history, morphed into an international confrontation drawing in a dozen countries. It has resulted in the largest number of Russians ever killed by the United States and has thrust both Russia and Turkey and Iran and Israel to the brink of war. Internal strife in Libya sucked in not just Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but also Russia and the United States.
There is a principal explanation for such risks. The Middle East has become the world’s most polarized region and, paradoxically, its most integrated. That combination—along with weak state structures, powerful nonstate actors, and multiple transitions occurring almost simultaneously—also makes the Middle East the world’s most volatile region. It further means that as long as its regional posture remains as it is, the United States will be just one poorly timed or dangerously aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from its next costly regional entanglement. Ultimately, the question is not chiefly whether the United States should disengage from the region. It is how it should choose to engage: diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort of balance.
ACT LOCALLY, THINK REGIONALLY
The story of the contemporary Middle East is one of a succession of rifts, each new one sitting atop its precursors, some taking momentary precedence over others, none ever truly or fully resolved. Today, the three most important rifts—between Israel and its foes, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between competing Sunni blocs—intersect in dangerous and potentially explosive ways.
Israel’s current adversaries are chiefly represented by the so-called axis of resistance: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and, although presently otherwise occupied, Syria. The struggle is playing out in the traditional arenas of the West Bank and Gaza but also in Syria, where Israel routinely strikes Iranian forces and Iranian-affiliated groups; in cyberspace; in Lebanon, where Israel faces the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah; and even in Iraq, where Israel has reportedly begun to target Iranian allies. The absence of most Arab states from this frontline makes it less prominent but no less dangerous.
For those Arab states, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been nudged to the sidelines by the two other battles. Saudi Arabia prioritizes its rivalry with Iran. Both countries exploit the Shiite-Sunni rift to mobilize their respective constituencies but are in reality moved by power politics, a tug of war for regional influence unfolding in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and the Gulf states.
Finally, there is the Sunni-Sunni rift, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE vying with Qatar and Turkey. As Hussein Agha and I wrote in The New Yorker in March, this is the more momentous, if least covered, of the divides, with both supremacy over the Sunni world and the role of political Islam at stake. Whether in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, or as far afield as Sudan, this competition will largely define the region’s future.
Together with the region’s polarization is a lack of effective communication, which makes things ever more perilous. There is no meaningful channel between Iran and Israel, no official one between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and little real diplomacy beyond rhetorical jousting between the rival Sunni blocs.
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