Emerging Strategic Shifts in West Asia
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 29 Aug , 2020


The ’Abraham Accord’ between Israel and UAE brokered by US is a path breaking pivotal political event impacting the strategic panorama of the troubled West Asia. On the face of it, the Accord has potential to bring about stability to the region but there are undercurrents, emotional binds and political spirals which are difficult to fathom and resolve. There is a ‘conditions apply’ tag by all parties to the Accord keeping their option open for a way out, if so required. It is obvious that Iran is being pushed to the wall looking at the tell tale signs of convergence between sectarian Sunni rivals and Israel duly backed by the US.

A riposte was expected from the Iranian side to convey their political defiance to such an opportunistic strategic shift by her opponents. Sure enough, after a week of this episode, Iran fired newly minted cruise missiles a symbolic expression of their coercive intents. Around same time, the Iranian political buoyancy seems to be on the rise with UN Security Council rejecting US request for extension of UN economic sanctions beyond October when these are scheduled to expire. Impact of US economic sanctions apart, continuation of support of remainder five signatories of the nuclear deal also goes to Iranian credit.

There is a shake hand between old rivals of seven decades setting aside the religious fanatics narratives. There is also a US sponsored draft plan to create an independent Palestinian state on the table as the next move in the sequence of diplomatic maneuvers. The stage is being set to get round the regional players astride a hypothesis suggestive of positive outcomes of recent strategic shift and intended initiatives in the future. The political future of displaced Palestinians and their equation with the Israel alongside politico-military balance in the region would be central to the intended exercise. This paper intends analyzing the current political hydraulics in play amongst the deeply segmented West Asian nations and strategic possibilities in the future.

In Syrian theatre, the reconciliation is not on the horizon as yet with both sides digging in their heels showing no signs of scaling down their political intransigence. The big wigs of sectarian lobbies continue to vitiate the environment infusing high degree of mistrust. Russia, Iran, Saudi Arab, Turkey and local militias like Kurds are the involved parties seen to be steering their own strategic agendas. The UN, as the anchor, has no statutory powers to prod and prompt, or force down an amicable solution.

 The US sponsored Arab spring in Syrian landscape appears to have diluted due to support of Iran and Russia. Apropos, consequent to neutralization of ISIS, US seemed to have shifted her focus on Iran a force behind Syrian obstinate conduct. Anti Israeli stance of Iran and Syria combine is a matter of higher concern for US in their strategic outreach in West Asia. As a result, there is little elbow space for a compromise and the matter continues to be open to political manipulations. Russia, consequent to her military intervention in Syria, is seen to be gradually occupying this strategic space on western flank of the region.

Afghanistan also continues to be on the boil with little progress post US-Taliban agreement which did not include the legitimate elected government as a party to the accord. The US in hurry to expedite their draw down, an electoral promise, has chosen to treat the symptoms and not the disease. Taliban, instead of scaling down their terror activities as agreed, have chosen to up the ante on the strength of US recognizing them as the force de jure. Pakistan duly backed by China has been prompting Taliban to push their radical agenda.

Once the US moves out of this region, it would be open for strategic grab. In that, Russia with substantial influence in Iranian and Afghani polity, the bear hug from Mediterranean to Indian Ocean seems to be a possibility in future. China and Pakistan would also be contenders to share the strategic pie being vacated by the US.

The non state actors representing different political lobbies are fully entrenched and continue to create instability in the region. Hamas, Hezbollah, Kata ib Hizballah, ISIS, Al Qaida, Houthis and whole lot of their affiliates are very much present and active with potential to create inimical situations sans any accountability on behest of their controllers. They draw their strength from fanatic religious tenets deeply entrenched in their beliefs which are bound to cast shadow on any move for reconciliation in the region. Therefore, it is difficult to bring about any convergence of minds in the West Asian landscape easily unless there are existentially compelling factors.

The instant agreement between Israel and UAE is result of commonality of Iranian threat, besides compulsions to look for alternate avenues of economic development beyond dependence only on oil and gas. The reality of existence of Israel with unfettered support of the strong western powers cannot be ignored any more. A strategic alliance with them is a pragmatic option which is likely to result in peace, progress and development.

 UAE, amongst all the Arab nations, has been most liberal and modern in their outlook and stands in the fore front in reaching out to outside world. It is the Iranian threat from across the Persian Gulf which is seen to be an impediment to their economic development and future national objectives. Accordingly, UAE has chosen to shift the gears and taken a path breaking decision to recognize Israel going beyond conservative religious binds. UAE, therefore has set a precedence for those sitting on the fence to follow her by moving away from legacy narratives of medieval mindset.

Looking at the back drop, it is the forced eviction of Muslim Palestinians from their habitat to make way for Jews is the reason of Islamic acrimony against Israel. They fought three wars but failed to retrieve the captured areas and retain political identity of the co religious Palestinian people. Israel on other hand continues to occupy complete Palestinian tracts and adjoining lands till date. Egypt and Jordon chose to recognize Israel as a nation but the remainder Islamic fraternity continued to oppose to idea of recognizing Israel to date.

Later over period of time the common Islamic religious cause transformed into sectarian rivalry in the maze of geo politics of oil and gas due to competitive interests. The extra regional powers further created schism by siding with rival regional lobbies for control of energy resources and strategic economic prudence. Military intervention, regime change and economic sanctions have been the mechanism for domination of energy rich region. Iran and Saudi Arab became the lead nations guiding the destinies of Shia and Sunni dispensations with tacit support of their extra regional patrons.

The US supports Israel and also seen to be ensuring economic predominance of Saudi Arab at the cost of Iran. Iran continues to pursue her objective of total annihilation of Israel and her supporters, a carryover agenda of Islamic revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini. Militarily, Iran has advantage due to her nuclear capabilities and experienced conventional forces. Iran also has an effective net work of non state actors as her proxies spread across the region. Iranian doctrine is suggestive of inclusiveness of conventional and nuclear forces alongside sub conventional grey zone elements. Hence, Iran is not a push over with her military tentacles spread across the region with credible coercive content.

In response, President Trump is following strategy to defang Iran by forcing her to roll back her nuclear and missile development programmes. To do that, US walked out of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018 despite Iran adhering to the laid down restrictive norms to the satisfaction of international scrutiny. In order to pressurize Iran, US imposed economic sanctions which included punitive provisions even against the countries that may be trading with Iran. However, the other five signatory continue to be part of the deal which signifies intent of the global big wigs to contain nuclear ambitions of Iran through engagement and not confrontation.

Russia is a known supporter of Iran and with ongoing US-Iran standoff she has an opportunity to emerge as a reference power in Iranian affairs . China is also fishing in the troubled water on the strength of her deep pockets. China is reported to have agreed to invest $ 400 billion for infrastructure and industrial development. In return Iran would be supplying energy resources on concessional terms to China for 25 years in defiance of US sanctions. It has added to the cold war between US and China, besides possibilities of strategic shift by Iran towards China – Russia combine.

Bahrain and Oman are also reported to be in touch with Israel unofficially who may follow the footsteps of UAE. Both these nations are located within tactical striking distances from Iran and look for security as their main concern. Saudi Arab being a close ally of US has been keeping a low profile as regards to Israel. Being a lead Islamic nation, they possibly cannot be seen overtly inclined to recognize Israel till the time Palestinians achieve their legitimate political aspirations, a pan Islamic concern. The UAE, a representative of Sunni fraternity, has made it clear that they will not open their embassy in Israel till the time Palestinians state sees light of the day.

With Abraham accord, there is an emerging convergence of Sunni fraternity and Israel with patronage of US. Such a strong opposition would certainly deter and force Iran to review her policy of indulging in pro active coercive military overtures. At the same time, with such an enhanced security threat, Iran is unlikely to agree to dilute her nuclear programme beyond what they have agreed in the nuclear deal. Therefore, with this new political move, the US intentions of complete roll back of Iranian nuclear plans seem difficult.

With elections due in US in next three months, Iran may well wait it out till the elections are over. In case the Democrats come to power, they are expected to rejoin the Iranian nuclear deal and may revoke some of economic sanctions. Realizing this possibility, even Trump is talking of a deal with Iran within 30 days of his coming back to power. It is reasonably to presume that Trump may have to scale down his parting line in dealing with Iran to create a window for negotiations.

Whatever be the next political dispensation in the US, there exists a convergence on policy towards Saudi Arab and security of Israel as a national priority. Iranian economy is sliding by the day due to economic sanctions impacting the common men. If it continues, then it may prompt internal public revolt making it difficult to sustain political intransigence of the Iranian government for long. What probably would change in the US policy is the way to deal with Iran and China in post election scenario. The focus is likely to be on forcing Iran to reduce the threat against Israel and contain China to check her attempts of intrusion into the traditional US strategic space.

The possible game changer would be grant of independence to Palestinians with acceptable political package alongside return of Syrian and Lebanese occupied territories by Israel. If this happens, then the Islamic cause of religious confrontation with Israel would get severely diluted lowering the tempers. The arbitrators have to be pragmatic, justified and ethically correct in their approach to the issue. The intended concept cuts both ways and may not succeed if US and Israel combine try to exploit the situation to Israel’s advantage. It requires deft diplomacy to convince all the stake holders to achieve such a land mark political objective.

If all goes well, then even the sectarian rivalry would also gradually get reduced bringing about conducive environment to shift focus on economic and human development. It requires bold initiatives and political will to compromise as demonstrated by UAE and Israel in their political patch up. This spirit is required to be taken forward in the interest of all constituents of West Asia. It sounds difficult looking at the societal differentials in the region, but no harm in trying to transform impossible into possible.

It warrants political accommodation sans confrontation as the way forward to resolve legacy complicated disputes. Earlier the nations in the region realize the positive connotations of political inclusivity, better it would be for the regional stability. The US with her all pervasive ‘strategic pull’ have a leading role in facilitating such a hypothesis to become a reality. The world awaits with utmost optimism and hope to usher in peace, progress and development in the West Asia.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav

Former Director General Infantry, Indian Army.

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4 thoughts on “Emerging Strategic Shifts in West Asia

  1. Extremely well written article!
    Full of substance, covering ALL foreseeable aspects which are likely to affect the situation in the Region.
    Opinions of the Author are logically concluded and very well expressed.
    Educative and Thought Provoking article.
    Thanks & Best Wishes. Jai Hind

  2. UAE & Israel has long been developing ties , specially in the security front. This deal is just an official declaration of the same.

    The benefit or the positive that UAE has sought from the deal is a concession from Israel to agree to non annexation of the Palestinian Territories.
    Israel has agreed to only suspend plans for annexations but on ground the annexation has happened in many places already and as such defacto the suspension is meaningless.
    In the Arab world,Oman and Bahrain too are likely to follow UAE in normalising ties with Israel.
    But in the Arab world , where as the Rulers or the Ruling parties may normalise ties with Israel, the Arab Muslims, across the Arab world will not agree to these normalisation, unless Israel withdraws from the Palestinian region under its illegal occupation. There will always be undercurrents which will surface time and again.
    Today the Arab world is fatigued by the unending war in its sphere and Palestinian cause has been put in the backburner due to this fatigue.

    West has managed to create a deep Shia- Sunni rift which now define the Arab world.
    Turkey’s efforts to once again become the Caliphate is deeply disturbing the the region further.
    Denial of its rich NE oilfields by US is ensuring that Syria is unable to re construct and become prosperous once again . This pushes Syria firmly in Iranian sphere and Iran has exploited this by expanding and making military bases in Syria, threatening Israel, which regularly attacks these bases.

    China which till now was only economically involved in this region , is now entering into a strategic partnership with Iran , which has resulted in India losing out on Chabahar port and its planned alternate route to Afghanistan.

    A fine article.,

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