Middle East: Cold war and hot conflict(s)

US Embassy in Jerusalem, Iran deal, Syria conflict, war in Yemen and there are more hotspots in the Middle East. Is this somehow a perfect storm that could lead to even bigger conflicts as some observers claim, or you see the situation less dramatically, and why? Read few comments.

Jeffrey VanDenBergChair, Political Science & Geography Department, Professor of Political Science, Director of Middle East Studies, Drury University

While nothing is predictable in the Middle East, the conditions for increased conflict in the region are present and therefore should be a source of concern.  What makes the region particularly combustible at this moment are the multiple ways in which tensions are overlapping and interwoven across issues.  Syria seems to be the vortex pulling these conflicts together.  We are seeing a regional version of the Cold War, with regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia locked in a struggle for supremacy and projecting their power across the Middle East system (Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq,  Bahrain, the Maghreb).  Hardliners dominate Israeli politics and have calculated they cannot accept Iran’s presence in neighboring Syria and are willing to use force to prevent it.  Iran is eager to flex its muscles in response to the US violation of the JCPOA nuclear deal.  And the external superpowers, Russia and the United States, have much different calculations of interest that could exacerbate rather than ease regional tensions.  Russia is likely to use President Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA to strengthen its cooperation with Iran, for example.  Finally, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has signaled an aggressive regional policy towards its Arab neighbors (Yemen, Qatar) and indirectly with Iran.

On top of all this are internal challenges such as economic stagnation and problems of political legitimacy in many states in the region that can spill across borders or compel leaders toward aggressive policies. I don’t think the US embassy move to Jerusalem will be the spark that ignites regional conflict.  Of the most concern is the military tit-for-tat between Israel and Iran in Syria last week. Such incidences have the potential to spiral out of control.

David Mack, Middle East Institute Scholar and former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates

Trump’s Middle East policy has varied from issue to issue and country to country.

Regarding the Israel – Palestine struggle, he has given in to Netanyahu on almost all points to satisfy U.S. domestic constituents, especially right wing fundamentalist Christian groups and the minority of the U.S. Jewish community that oppose a two state solution that would give Palestinians a viable state. For the Palestinians, he has had only promises.

On Iran, Trump has taken steps that make an Iranian return to nuclear weapons development more, not less likely. This has widened a gap between the U.S. and our European allies that supported the agreement to stop weapons development and provide openings for Iran to trade with the rest of the world.

Adam Baron, Visiting Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

This is certainly a period of great anxiety. Many of the regions key players are at full alert but, all the while, appearing to lack a clear plan of how they wish to proceed. Its a powdering. This doesn’t mean there will necessarily be a conflagration, but it does mean there’s certainly a high risk of one.

James  LutzProfessor of Political Science, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne

There is little doubt that the Middle East remains a center of unrest and some turmoil and potential chaos.  The defeat of ISIL in Syria and Iraq provided an opportunity for a period in which there would be less conflict, but that opportunity, like previous opportunities, has been missed.

The threat that ISIL presented in Iraq and Syria provided an opportunity for a rapprochement between the United States and Iran.  Both countries tacitly collaborated in the extended effort to drive ISIL forces out of Mosul and other parts of Iraq, and both shared the same goal in terms of defeating ISIL in Syria even if they disagreed about supporting the Assad regime.  The defeat of ISIL in effect meant that there was little likelihood of the Assad regime being defeated in the civil war.  There was an opportunity to resolve differences between the countries in the face of a common enemy–indeed a common threat.  This opportunity was ignored.  It is possible that the Trump administration did wait to denounce the previous agreement on Iran’s nuclear program until after the battlefield defeat of ISIL, but the United States was clearly not interested in resolving the more deep-seated issues dividing the two countries.  The aversion to working with Iran may reflect deeply held views by members of the Trump administration or simply an effort to generate issues that will help the Republican Party in the upcoming elections.

The tensions in the Middle East, including tensions between the United States and Iran and Israel and Iran, have increased with recent events.  The movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem has clearly alienated the populations of a number of countries in the Middle East and made it more difficult for their governments to cooperate with the United States in other areas.  It would appear that Israel is stirring the pot a bit with military confrontations with Iranian military forces in Syria and with the statement that Iran would not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons.  Of course, these kinds of diplomatic and military confrontations serve the political interests of hardliners in both Israel and Iran (and possibly in the United States as well).  Israel, of course benefits from any disruption in diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States.  It is also unlikely that any US president will be able to reverse the embassy move.  It was easier to maintain the existing embassy in Tel Aviv, but to move it out of Jerusalem once established would generate domestic unhappiness among elements of the US voting population that would not be counterbalanced by positive gains in other areas.

The current civil war in Yemen represents another confrontation involving Iran in support of the Shia Houthis (and other dissident groups) opposed by the government forces supported by Saudi Arabia (and at least in diplomatic terms by the United States).  The confrontation is an extension of the differences between Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, and Iran which has become a focus for US animosity.  It is unlikely that any one side will completely win in this civil war.  Logistics and geography make it more difficult for Iran to supply support indefinitely and Saudi Arabia can rely on US support.  Of course, there are other actors involved in the Yemen conflict that could make any resolution difficult.  The southern part of the country (Aden and the area of the former Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen) has a desire to succeed.  There is also the presence of the Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula group which has sided with the government forces against the Houthis  on several occasions which somewhat complicates the positions of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

None of these conflicts in isolation is threatening to disrupt the region, and even the involvement of Iran in many of these conflicts directly or indirectly does not necessarily mean that there will be chaos.  It is clear, however, that this constellation of forces presents an opportunity in which the level of violence and instability will increase.  Libya has failed to establish a functioning government, and more turmoil could undermine other regimes in the country creating situations in which governments in the region and outside the region can become concerned or be tempted to involve themselves in the region to either enhance their own efforts or to create difficulties for a country that they currently have other issues that separate them (which could include disputes elsewhere between Russia and the United States, Russia and China, or China and the United States).

In sum, the future would be brighter if there were not this constellation of conflicts that could be quite destabilizing for the region and which could spread to other parts of the world

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