Unravelling Opportunities: Exploring Hotspots in the Middle East

Anil Trigunayat

West Asia’s strategic landscape is riddled with geo-political, geo-economic, and geo-religious contests, making it a hub for global hotspots like Palestine, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. The region is affected by internal conflicts, foreign interventions, and competition among powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and superpowers like the US. However, the area is witnessing certain positive socio-economic changes and attempts for rapprochement among countries. Amidst the complex regional dynamics, the role of China and Russia is expanding, potentially leading to further competition and destabilization.

West Asia or Middle East’s strategic contours have several fault lines as the region remains the hotbed of geo-political, geo-economic and geo-religious contestations. No wonder it can boast of possibly the largest number of most incendiary hotspots in the world be it Palestine, Libya, Yemen, Syria or Iraq each of which has the potential to ignite the whole landscape with global repercussions from the supply of hydrocarbons to the closure of critical and crucial maritime routes.

Very often the misplaced and unjustified external interventions have been the cause of instability in the region which have tended to exploit the intra-regional fault lines for their own geo-political ends all through the Cold War and thereafter including throughout the Arab Spring when regime change became the main agenda and cause of aimless destruction and destabilization with no clarity on end goals. Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen clearly point in that direction. Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon remain in uncertain flux. Petrodollars and oil for security defined the war games as a pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused further polarization.

Iraq wars by the Bushes may have been the most destabilising geo-strategic events which spawned extremism and terrorism even more. Intra-regional conflicts and competition among key new powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran, within the Shia -Sunni religious context for supremacy is a key driver, kept the region volatile with or without the direct interest of super powers especially the US who tried to fan the confusion even more.

The security of Israel is a predominant factor for the US also led to the non-resolution of the Palestinian issue. Iran- Israel – two nuclear or near nuclear powers continue to remain in an existential war game with a mutually destructive syndrome which might have the potential for a regional flareup. As such Tehran’s 3H matrix of Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis has provided it an unusual heft across the Arab landscape.

Even regional powers like Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have weaponized their foreign policy along with prevailing super and major powers like the USA, UK, France, Italy and Russia often on opposing sides once the regime change happened.

Libya is a stark example of senseless intervention when the genuine aspirations of Libyans to craft their own destiny through a revolution have been totally sidelined and undermined. The country is divided into militia powers with the East led by the ambitious General Haftar supported by the UK, France, Russia, UAE and Egypt while Western Libya and Tripoli government are supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy. USA vacillates betwixt. Consequently, chaos is the strategic ports and access to the Mediterranean as well as support from the Iranians.

Fight against the Daesh (ISIS) became a pretext. After a decade finally, the Arab world decided to get Syria and Assad back into their fold of the Arab league despite the US and Western sanctions like Caesar’s Act and their displeasure.

At the same time, the region, despite the intra-regional competition, is witnessing some salutary trends and winds of rapprochement and far-reaching socio-economic reforms as well as a recalibration of conscious choices. The first one was evident when the Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) decided to lift the result and halfhearted attempts by the international community continue to perpetuate the problem.

After Libya, they targeted Syria since strong men challenged the supremacy of the international order rightly or wrongly. They created the Free Syrian Army and capitalized on popular dissent riding high against President Bashar al-Assad. He was able to survive due to the Russian intervention to secure their own nearly four-year-old blockade of Qatar which was proving to be counterproductive at the 2021 al Ula GCC Summit leading to broad normalization with UAE, Bahrain and Egypt even if at a differential pace. Turkish President Erdogan, suffering under the economic downturn, chose to reach out to UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Israel.

The former US President was instrumental in the heightened tensions with Iran as he walked out of the JCPOA Nuclear deal but he engineered the Abraham Accords whereby he helped Tel Aviv in normalizing ties with Sunni countries like UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan and made outreach to others while shelving the Palestinian issue through his unconvincing so-called “Deal of the Century’.

Biden administration broadly follows suit and the peace continues to elude both the Palestinians and Israelis even adversely impacting the chances of expansion or continuation of the Abraham Accords. But the relationship between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv has witnessed a qualitative change bilaterally as well within I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE and USA) the so-called West Asian Quartet which has seen good and credible projects and outcomes in such a short time.

One of the most significant rapprochements has been the restoration of diplomatic ties between arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran with the mediation of Iraq, Oman and China in that order. It could be a game changer if the sincerity of purpose and intent and action becomes visible on the part of all concerned. One of the main reasons for this normalization was the disenchantment with the US security umbrella and the unwinnable Yemen war as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned.

As for the much-sanctioned and vilified Iran, its domestic problems and strife and economic stress are reasons enough to seek modus vivendi with the Sunni world. As a result Yemen and Houthis, broadly under Iranian influence, have begun to show some improvement and restraint which the Saudis so badly wanted after having gone into an unwinnable war and ensuing chaos and humanitarian crisis. At the end of the day, the security and stability of West Asia are of great importance to Asia and the world especially as the pandemic and Russia -Ukraine wars are having consequential destabilizing impacts on the region and beyond.

Iraq has still not stabilized fully and there are greater voices of discontent against the government and sectarian political system as well as against the presence of the Americans. But Baghdad too is finding ways to contribute to regional harmonization so that efforts could be made to stabilize the domestic discord and disenchantment of Iraqi people.

Likewise, Egypt another major regional power is beginning to bury the hatchet with several of its competitors including Iran and Turkey which along with Qatar supported the proscribed Muslim brotherhood. Even an embattled Lebanon signed an agreement for the exploration of hydrocarbons with Israel with the intervention and guarantees by the US despite the two sides not having diplomatic ties.

Sudan has emerged as a major hot spot once again with the military and para-military forces fighting for supremacy with clear support from several regional countries and middle powers which is also indicative of their continued ambitions to have their surrogates in power. They are also maintaining their bases in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. As the disenchantment and perceived distrust with the US policies grows among the regional majors China through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and 1+2+3 strategic approach is expanding its footprints from Tehran to Tel Aviv.

Likewise, Russia through its partnership under the OPEC+ format as well as bilaterally hopes to reestablish its sphere of interest in the region. Most countries especially oil-rich GCC are looking to engage more actively with their markets like China and India while following strategic autonomy as a negotiating leverage in their foreign affairs and “Act East Policy’ in their international discourse while addressing their internal challenges. They are also showing increasing interest in China-centric SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and BRICS which might be an irritant to Indo-Pacific oriented USA and the West.

With this rather complicated scenario, the region might see enhanced and more challenging competition and destabilization and more hot spots might be engineered yet again. West Asia remains in flux but only the fair principles of regional modus vivendi can help them sustain a modicum of peace and stability.

The article was first published in Issue 3 of the South Asia Defense Strategic Review.

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