A decade may appear to be a microcosm compared to the infinity of time, however, when measured on the scale of geo-politics, a decade can often become an eternity. Viewed in the context of the decade long blood-letting in the Middle East since the US led invasion of Iraq, it would be fair to revisit the US Mission of ‘Winning the Global War on Terror’ and the ‘promotion of freedom as an alternative to tyranny and despair.’
The aim is to highlight the external reasons for the conflict, a conflict that has little chance of waning, since there are major interests involved.
The issue is relevant since far from eliminating terror, not only is the Al Qaeda network intact, their acts of terror have been surpassed by the brutal Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams and/or the Levant (ISIS/ISIL). In neighbouring Syria, the ‘externally fuelled’ civil war continues and in the last four years, close to 300, 000 people have lost their lives, making Syria the ‘human tragedy of the decade.’ Indeed, the macabre dance of death being played out in the Middle-East, is a travesty of freedom and peace.
While there are deep rooted reasons for the situation to have manifested in the way it has, the reason of its precipitation is common – the Middle East remains an arena for external players to play geo-strategic games. From carving out artificial states out of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire to the campaign to eliminate terror by the USA, the name of the game has ‘been’ and ‘remains’ imperialism. The aim is to highlight the external reasons for the conflict, a conflict that has little chance of waning, since there are major interests involved. At the same time, an attempt is being made to make sense of the chaos as evident from some of the apparent contradictions:
- Anti-Assad (Free Syrian Army and the like) forces are fighting the government of Syria, with support of western powers, championing the cause of freedom.
- The ISIS/ISIL, a Salafist off-shoot of Al Qaeda has overrun large parts of Iraq and Syria in the hope of creating an Islamic Caliphate. In so doing, they are threatening the government in Bagdad whom the US is constrained to support. However, by taking on the ISIS/ISIL (Op Inherent Resolve), by default, the USA is now supporting President Assad’s regime in Damascus.
Iran which not so long ago was an international pariah, has suddenly transformed to a potential ally to combat the ISIS.
- Iran which not so long ago was an international pariah, has suddenly transformed to a potential ally to combat the ISIS.
- USA’s regional allies – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are supporting the ISIS and Anti-Assad forces from behind the scene, and at the same time, her Zionist ally – Israel is also supporting the fight against Damascus.
- On her part, Syria and Iran continue to support Hezbollah and Hamas in the war against Israel as part of the larger Islamic Jihad against the Jewish State.
Lord Palmerston has been proved right: ‘Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.’ While a background of the historical, geographical and socio-economic reasons have been provided to simplify the context of this volatile mix, it is highlighted that it is the added factor of ‘external support’ that provides the high octane fuel to keep the flames of this conflict alive.
Demographics. Essentially part of the larger Arab (Bedouin) nation, Iraq and Syria (including the Christian dominated Lebanon) were carved out by France after she received the territory as part of her share after the First World War; an outcome of a secret agreement (Sykes-Picot) brokered between Britain and France. On her part, Britain retained Trans-Jordan in the south and controlled it with brute force between the two wars. Israel was subsequently created out of this territory as a nation state in 1948, and became a haven for displaced Jews after the horrific persecution of Zionists in Europe.
The Cold War was more about securing energy resources of the Middle East, than over ideologies…
The larger question of Palestine, the quintessential home for Christians, Jews and Muslims, in the form of an(utopian) Palestinian Stateis a task left to future generations. Since it remains an unsettled question, it keeps the Zionist-Muslim conflict alive. Another unsettled question is in the form of the nationality of the 28 Million Kurds who inhabit the North Eastern Mountains of Iraq (5-6 million), Northern portions of Syria (2 Million), apart from those overflowing into neighbouring Iran (6 Million) and Turkey (14.5 Million).
Religion. Professing to be a secular country, 90 percent of Syria’s population are Muslims out of which 80 percent are native Arabs; Christians, Druze and the rest making up the balance. Out of the Muslims (including Kurds), 72 percent are Sunni, while only 13 percent are Shia, including the ruling Alawites, making Syria a predominantly Sunni dominated country ruled by Shias. On the other hand, while 97 percent of Iraq’s population are Muslims, 65 percent are Shias making the 32-37 percent of Sunnis of Iraq, a significant minority.
Historical background. Both Iraq and Syria were part of the Safavid Empire of Persia and later of the Ottoman Empire and remained that way till the First World War. As victors, the French and the British divided the territories as given in the above map. It is pertinent to add that this division was without consideration for religion, sect or tribe/clan – it was arbitrary. This historic fact lies at the root of the problems as they confront the region even today; the straight lines of the agreement and the general alignment of the current borders make this fact evident.
The central location of the region, wedged between Europe and Asia on one side, and providing access to the sea in the south (Iraq) and West (Syria), and opening up a land route to the troubled underbelly of Russia, makes for a multitude of reasons in terms strategic advantages and vulnerabilities. On the other side, with a large border with Iran, another adversary of the western world, Iraq offers the ideal flank combined with Turkey in the North and the Sea in the south for the USA to keep Iran’s ambitions for regional dominance in check.
Pivoted around Iraq and Syria, the physical features that make up the land and sea scape of the region have shaped its destiny. Though the water bodies surrounding the arid landmass are inter-connected, they offer vulnerable choke points. In the south, the region is connected to the Arabian Sea through the narrow Straits of Hormuz, while the Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas, making them vulnerable choke points. Connected to Europe by a narrow isthmus in Turkey, through which passes the Straits of Bosporus, the arid land of Iran in the east blends with the bleak mountains of Afghanistan and Baluchistan in Pakistan. Towards its North, lie Turkey and beyond her territory, the troubled frontier regions of Georgia and Albania, presenting the underbelly of Russia.
Energy fuels the world, and control over this vital resource is a major driver of global geo-politics. Adding to the volatility, gas and the alignment of its pipelines has gained salience as this has become the fuel for the future. In practice, global politics of energy manifest in four ways:
- By physical control over its supply at the point of origin – benefits are accrued either way by restricting and/or regulating its flow.
…Qatar supported by Saudi Arabia want to pipe gas to Europe through Jordan, and by so doing, prevent Iran from tapping this lucrative market directly.
- By controlling the Sea Lanes, especially the choke points.
- By controlling the supply of gas through the routing of pipelines.
- By controlling the energy economy through the medium of the petro dollars and pricing.
The Cold War was more about securing energy resources of the Middle East, than over ideologies – the Western World led by the USA coveted this resource and by extension, deny them to the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, Russia became a significant energy exporter and a principal supplier of gas energy to Europe, while China followed by India, the mega economies of Asia became large consumers and net importers. Around the same time, the USA reduced her dependency on energy imports from the Middle East by adding to her gas reserves by large-scale fracking and diversifying energy imports from Canada and other American suppliers. While this changed the demand-supply situation, a combination of factors like the reserves available in the Middle East region and the requirement to prise the stranglehold Russia has on the European Market by opening alternate supply lines from the Central Asian Republics through Turkey became the new game. At the same time, the USA and Russia are both wooing Turkey as she provides an alternate link to southern Europe. At the same time the USA is ensuring (adequate) instability in Syria and Iraq.
Within these broad rules of the game, the commercial exploitation of the gigantic Pars Gas field in the Persian Gulf (2/3rd with Iran and 1/3rd with Qatar) for supply to the lucrative market in Europe is a major factor for the conflict. By keeping the conflict alive in Iraq and Syria, Iran is unable to route her gas supplies through their territories and this has forced her to consider linking her supplies to the pipeline planned from the Central Asian Republics through Turkey. On the other hand, Qatar supported by Saudi Arabia want to pipe gas to Europe through Jordan, and by so doing, prevent Iran from tapping this lucrative market directly. Either way, Iran is being hemmed in and she cannot exploit the situation as instability in her immediate neighbourhood forces her to look for alternatives.
Terrorism remains a serious threat, but the threat has been partially contained and new measures are needed.
The lucrative markets of China and India hold great prospects for Iran. Gas from Iran to China can be conduited through Pakistan along the ambitious Gwader-Kashgar Highway, while the same can be piped to India through the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline; the success of which will have a major impact on Indo-Pak relations. In either case, this requires stability in Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan.
Global Strategic Interests in the Region
The USA. Bruce W. Jentleson of the Sanford School, Duke University, has extrapolated five principal interests the USA has in the Middle East. Since they are self-explanatory, these are being reproduced, the additions (italics), however are the implications as viewed by other nations:
- “Deterring, containing and defending against regional threats. With the Iraq war ended and troops being drawn down in Afghanistan, the main focus is on limiting and channelling Iran’s ambitions.(Very little seems to have changed).
- Supporting Arab regimes that have legitimacy in the eyes of their own people. For decades, America placed a priority on security cooperation with authoritarian regimes in order to fight terrorism and stabilize oil prices. Democracy and human rights took a back seat. Today, however, the United States cannot ignore social upheavals and democratic reform movements spreading across the region. (The inference to Syria is evident).
- Fighting terrorism. Efforts to defeat al Qaeda pushed the U.S. into close ties to sclerotic regimes (such as those in Yemen and Egypt) that later proved unstable. Terrorism remains a serious threat, but the threat has been partially contained and new measures are needed. (The US has now added the ISIS/ISIL to this list of (self-created)terror organisations).
Russia is attempting to play the same game as the USA is attempting, both wooing Turkey for their own reasons, however, in Iraq-Syria and even Iran, she is at odds with the USA.
- Enhancing Israeli security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace. The United States remains committed to enhancing Israeli security through military aid, intelligence collaboration and other means. Progress toward Arab-Israeli peace, long a prominent part of support for Israel, has become even more in the U.S. interest today. (This remains true even today).
- Ensuring stable access to affordable oil. While Gulf oil remains important to the global economy, increased domestic natural gas production and progress on alternative fuels and energy conservation have made the U.S. economy less dependent on Gulf supplies.”(By inverse logic, denial/controlling of energy supplies to potential adversaries becomes more important).
The informal understanding between the United States and Islamist organizations which was evident during the Cold War, continues and they remain willing partners in the effort to undermine Russia and concurrently limit Shia progression in the region. This not only lies at the root of the conflict, but is the main reason for its continuation.
On the other hand, despite Russia’s diminished strategic signature, it is vital for her to retain control of access from the Black to the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, not only does this require a significant presence in the Black Sea, but also in the Mediterranean; the strategically located Russian Tartus Naval Base off the Syrian coast opposite Crete remaining important. This strategic requirement not only dictates that Russian support for President Bashar Al Assad to continue, but the option to pipe Russian Gas through Turkey to reduce the geographical importance of Ukraine, which also remains in turmoil, is important. In a way, Russia is attempting to play the same game as the USA is attempting, both wooing Turkey for their own reasons, however, in Iraq-Syria and even Iran, she is at odds with the USA.
India cannot afford not to have an alternative. She needs to seriously consider the undersea pipeline option from Iran to India, ideally linked with the proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Chabahar Port.
The Chinese angle in this energy game is different. Being a large importer of energy resources, she is trying to diversify its sources beyond Russia and the Central Asian Republics, and trying to expand her options in the Middle East. Thus, on one side, her requirement to maintain status quo is in convergence with that of Russia, on the other hand, she is constrained to do so, since she has made significant economic investments in Iran, Iraq and Syria. At the same time, she would attempt to facilitate gas supplies from Iran through Pakistan at the cost of cutting out India from the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. With promises of massive economic assistance to Pakistan for developing the multi-modal Gwadar-Kashgar Karakoram Highway, this needs to be factored in India’s strategic calculations.
Israel and Turkey have vested interests in stalling the proposed pipeline through Iraq and Syria. For Turkey, it means her strategic relevance in providing a conduit goes up exponentially. On the other hand, this enhances the scope for Israel to provide gas directly to Europe from her finds in the promising off-shore Leviathan Gas fields. Either way it is viewed, the prospects of peace returning to Iraq and Syria seem to be bleak in the near future. The commercial interests of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are evident, while their brand of religion is well aligned with other Anti-Shia forces in the region. The interest of both Sunni nations is clear – retard Iran’s strategic progression at all costs and for that they, at least till the time ISIS/ISIL menace became ominous, they would continue to support the policies of the USA. How this plays out in the long term remains unsure, and though a change could be expected with a thaw in the US-Iranian relations, it is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the ongoing conflict in Iraq and/or Syria.
Apart from expediting the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, India also needs to expedite the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. However, despite rounds of talks, the proposals have not seen the light of the day due to the nature of the India-Pakistan relations and the turbulence in Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan and on both sides of the Durand Line in Khyber-Pakhtoonistan. While it is in the interest of Pakistan to set her house in order, even if not to help India, it makes sense for her to do so to establish the economic veracity of the Gwader-Kashgar Highway which runs through the same areas.
At the same time, India cannot afford not to have an alternative. She needs to seriously consider the undersea pipeline option from Iran to India, ideally linked with the proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Chabahar Port. The recent lifting of western sanctions on Iran and the fact that Iran herself is promoting the Middle East to India Deepwater Pipeline (MEIDP) initiative, needs to be taken advantage of. This would not only have the advantage of keeping Pakistan out of the equation, but also offer diversified supplies. India’s friendly relations with Iran, even when sanctions had been imposed on her, as also with Turkmenistan need to be made use, making it a win-win situation for the three nations, as also providing an alternative link to the energy rich nations in the north.
George W. Bush, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, March 2006, Washington, p.1 of the Opening Statement
 Kurdish Population, Wikipedia