The Middle East is experiencing a period of unusual violence and instability. Careful observers of the region are well aware that a major restructuring of regional power equations is taking place which, if carried further, can have radical consequences. It may even result in a redrawing of the frontiers of the states created by western powers almost a century ago after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.
The present situation is one of great complexity marked by a number of vicious and overlapping power struggles. Consider, for a moment, the impact of the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, engineered to universal surprise by US President Barack Obama during his visit to Israel last month. Three years of Israeli-Turkish hostility were suddenly brought to an end when, prompted by Obama, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologised for the Israeli attack on Turkish flotilla Mavi Marmara, which had sought to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in May 2010. It will be recalled that Israeli commandos had stormed the ship, killing nine Turks on board.
An immediate result of the recent America-brokered reconciliation was the creation of a US-Israeli-Turkish coalition, united around the goal of bringing down President Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Damascus. Indeed, on the eve of Obama’s visit to the Middle East, his newly-appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, had given a clue to American objectives when — referring to Al Assad’s determination to cling on to power — he had said: “My goal is to see us change his calculation”.
However, Al Assad’s overthrow may be no more than the first objective of the new US-Israeli-Turkish coalition. Its wider aim will seem to be to destroy the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance, which has managed, over the past 30 years, to impose limits on the regional ambitions of both the US and Israel. Indeed, the alliance is now under threat since each of its members finds itself in great difficulty — Iran is under painful economic siege by the US and under threat of military attack by Israel; Syria is in the throes of a hugely destructive civil war; while Hezbollah, bereft of its two major allies, finds itself on the defensive even in Lebanon, its home territory.
In other words, the new US-Israeli-Turkish coalition will seem to be on the verge of achieving a spectacular success, which will confirm its status as the dominant regional axis. However, all is not plain sailing since this new power grouping faces a challenge from a rival Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis which — with support from Iraq, China and even from distant Algeria — is determined to prevent the collapse of the Syrian regime and the emergence of a new US-dominated system in the Middle East.
This power struggle between the two major groupings — US-Israel-Turkey versus Russia-Iran-Syria — is by no means the only game in town. For one thing, the partners in the first coalition do not share exactly the same objectives. The US detests Iran’s independent stance and wants to bring it to heel, with a view to ending Tehran’s challenge to America’s regional hegemony. Israel’s ambitions are more specific: It is determined to stop to Iran’s nuclear activities — which it suspects are not entirely peaceful — in order to protect its own regional monopoly of nuclear weapons.
As for Turkey, it was hopeful, before the present crisis, about heading a regional grouping to its south composed of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Visas between them were abolished. Turkey evidently hoped to extend this alliance to the Gulf states in the belief that a land route across Syria will help its businessmen win major construction contracts in the affluent oil-rich Gulf.
These ambitions have now proved illusory. Instead, Turkey finds itself facing two distinct threats — from a huge flood of Syrian refugees and from Syria’s ambitious Kurds who dream of uniting with Turkey’s own Kurds in a bid for regional Kurdish statehood. To head off this threat, Turkey has been making unprecedented overtures to its own Kurds which, if successful, can lead to the release of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, from the island prison, where he has languished since his capture in Nairobi by Turkish Special Forces in 1999. Last month, on the occasion of the Kurdish New Year, Ocalan urged Kurdish rebels to lay down their arms, a move which seemed to herald a new departure in Kurdish relations with Ankara and could even lead to the Kurds being given a measure of autonomy in Turkey.
Syria lies at the heart of a brutal power play. Its destruction and dismemberment can rewrite the rules of the regional game and may even threaten some of the borders of the new states which emerged after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.
Lebanon, for one, finds itself in extreme danger. Any change of regime in Syria will threaten its fragile stability by upsetting the existing balance of power between its rival communities. Jordan is also under threat. Weak and vulnerable, it has been unable to resist pressures to join the US-Israeli-Turkish campaign against Bashar Al Assad. Indeed, some of Syria’s enemies are now being armed and trained in Jordan. Yet, at the same time, a massive influx of Syrian refugees is threatening Jordan’s precarious internal balance. Indeed, if Israel continues its seizure and colonisation of the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan may one day have to cope with a new flood of Palestinian refugees. Every Jordanian remembers the lapidary phrase of the former Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon: “Jordan is Palestine.”
It is evident that the region faces a period of enormous turmoil, with potentially far-reaching consequences for its stability and prosperity. Such are the dangers that, instead of fighting each other, the US and Russia should join in imposing a ceasefire on the warring parties. No doubt some extremist groups will want to continue fighting, but they should be isolated and curbed, while all those ready to talk should be brought to the conference table. The aim should be to encourage a peaceful change of government — perhaps even of the regime — in Damascus, in such a way as to rebuild the shattered country, bring the refugees home and guarantee the protection of Syria’s ancient and numerous minorities.
If the major powers fail to impose something of this sort — with generous financial help from the Gulf states for the rebuilding of Syria — it is easy to predict even greater communal violence, the flight of even more refugees, together with the massacre of vulnerable communities. This will not only destroy the Syrian Arab Republic, as we know it, within its present borders, but can have catastrophic consequences for the whole region.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.