Will the next US president witness a third Gulf war?
Even as ISIS is being pushed back, the Middle East is not getting any closer to being stabilized
Even as ISIS is being pushed back, the Middle East is not getting any closer to being stabilized. If anything the situation is looking more precarious than ever, as the political process in “democratic” Iraq is breaking down, and some have started to point out that the country cannot be put back together as a unitary state, but that at the very least it will need to be partitioned.
The same argument can be made for Syria, even if Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, will never accept it. The difference is that Assad can rule Syria as a repressive dictator with the backing of his allies, whereas there is no similarly coherent center of power in Iraq to do the same.
Meanwhile, the Kurds are clamouring for their own independent state. Getting it is long overdue, but Kurds do not live in substantial numbers just in Iraq and Syria but also Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish ambitions will clash directly with Iran, and chances are that will lead to serious humanitarian consequences.
To say nothing of how Turkey will deal with this issue: we are facing separatism within NATO borders, and Turks have already proven beyond reasonable doubt that they are committed to bombing the Kurds into submission if they need to.
And the traditional regional players are also in flux. Turkey is seeing mass terror attacks on almost a weekly basis, either as ISIS overspill from Syria and Iraq, or as a consequence of its aggression against Kurds in the war which has reignited the decades-old conflict with the PKK, while also dealing with millions of refugees from these conflicts.
Egypt has barely been stabilized through brutal repression, as the military establishment is reasserting its power. Saudi Arabia is in the middle of an overhaul of its economic model and of its society driven by Prince Mohammed bin Salman – these reforms are sorely needed and long overdue, but given the dynamics of the country, their success cannot be taken for granted, and if there is any serious pushback from the conservative constituency, the whole edifice could suffer.
Iran is also looking at potentially destabilizing effects from the economic boom which we expect to see after the lifting of Western sanctions. Again, these movements are, in and of themselves, to be welcome, but they will lead to instability and they may have unanticipated and very negative consequences.
The region is not simply unstable and in a flux: it remains highly combustible and spill-over effects like the ones Turkey is suffering pose a real threat to the region and the wider world. So far, the big winners from this situation have been Iran.
The last two elections in Iran have seen significant gains for the moderates who are seeking détente with the West and reintegration into the world economy, but the conservatives still hold significant powerDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Obama administration’s stand-offish approach to the region has effectively gifted Iraq and Syria to the Iranians (and the Russians in Syria), while the Iranian involvement in Yemen has drawn Saudi Arabia into a costly and messy war.
But is Iran big enough to fill these new boots? And will it remain internally politically stable to be able to act as a regional power centre, as the expected (positive) economic shocks they will see from the lifting of sanctions begin to impact its society?
The last two elections in Iran have seen significant gains for the moderates who are seeking détente with the West and reintegration into the world economy, but the conservatives still hold significant power and control over much of the military. If they start to think that they are being marginalized and decide to push back, all hell could break loose.
For our part, we find ourselves in the strange position of hoping that Iran especially, but also the Saudis, manage to extend and consolidate their hold and come to some kind of equilibrium. We also need to hope that Israel does not do anything erratic to scupper such a development.
Those are many things we need to hope for. And if any of them fails, it will not be long before we find ourselves needing to intervene in a new Gulf War, whether for humanitarian, geopolitical, or energy security reasons.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim