Middle East: What’s Hot — North, What’s Not — South

The title, no doubt chosen by the editors of the Washington Quarterly, is corny at best, stereotypical at worst. But the article itself, The Shifting Sands of State Power in the Middle East by Alastair Crooke of Conflicts Forum, couldn’t be more enlightening. Thanks to Paul Woodward at War in Context for alerting us to the piece, which we present in digest form. [All emphases added.]

Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria — nothing has been exactly easy for U.S. policymakers this past year. … In a sense, the president is facing the consequences of three key events that took place in the region more than 20 years ago. … the implosion of the Soviet Union, the military defeat of Iraq in 1991 [and the 1992] overthrow of the Ben-Gurion doctrine [in which Israel allied] itself with the region’s non-Arab periphery, namely Ethiopia, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey.

[Among the consequences] is that the United States’ old allies in the ‘”southern tier” — namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are likely to wield less influence in the future. The “northern tier” — which includes Turkey along with Iran, Qatar, Syria, and possibly Iraq and Lebanon — represents the nascent “axis of influence.”

On Turkey . . .

[P]otentially balancing the rising power of Tehran in the future. … Turkey had been the “wing” state of NATO for 44 years — at the Soviet Union’s periphery, it was in charge of containing communism. … Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s new stance and now its foreign minister, argued in his 2001 book, Strategic Depth, that Turkey no longer needed to be NATO’s wing state [and should instead] position itself at the pivotal point between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East [using] its unique geography and history to its own advantage.

On Israel-Palestine . . .

[When] U.S. policymakers indicate that it was unrealistic . . . to ever expect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to be able to freeze settlement expansion, this is seen widely as confirmation that the settlement project has now become irreversible. In other words . . . no Israeli prime minister can aspire to reverse the settlements.

The unraveling of [the Oslo process] naturally weakens U.S. allies within the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia [who] have justified their alliance with the United States, and warded off internal dissent, [with] the receding prospects of the realization of a Palestinian state.

On Syria . . .

[The] ascent of Iran as well as Turkey more or less at the expense of Egypt and Saudi Arabia . . . forms the background to Syria’s re-entry into the mainstream of Arab politics as a key figure in a new regional alliance. … Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 . . .

. . . not only to consolidate its position there, but also to realize the goal of its commander, Ariel Sharon, to bring about the fall of [Hafez al-Assad] in Syria.

At this point, [Assad] made a strategic alliance: he linked with his fellow Shi’a . . . in Lebanon and with Ayatollah Sayyed Khomeini of Iran. This . . . enabled the Shi’a movements in Lebanon to successfully resist Israeli and U.S. ambitions there.

[Hafez's son] Bashar al-Assad’s own strategic contribution to Syria, however, has been to recognize Turkey’s aspiration to resume its traditional central position [and to unleash] a cascade of trade and visa alleviation agreements, Syria has opened a window for Turkey into the Sunni Arab world that had effectively been closed since Kamal Ataturk’s time.

On Islam . . .

What is more striking, however, is that much of the new thinking in Islam . . . is taking place outside of the traditional centers of Sunni Arab strength. … Should the northern tier assume some political ascendency in the region, it is not hard to see that the Shi’a orientation, together with the Turkish and other forms of Sufi Islam . . . are likely to gain influence at the expense of literal, dogmatic, and intolerant Islam.

In conclusion . . .

Behind the northern tier’s ascendancy in regional politics lies the perception that Syria and its allies have read the Middle Eastern ground better than the United States and its allies, especially since they — Iran, Syria, and Turkey — judged the Iraq war correctly from the perspective of the region. … More importantly, all three are seen to have read the prospects for a Palestinian state more accurately [and] are in a better position, especially due to their links with Hamas and other Palestinian groups, to be able to craft a comprehensive regional solution.

Ultimately, the United States, as it digests the significance of the region’s shifting strategic balance as well as the drift toward this “other” reading, may well conclude that its true interests lean more toward working with this emergent northern tier than by clinging to its hitherto exclusive reliance on the wobbling platform of U.S. traditional regional allies.

[Also] the political vision of the northern tier is rapidly acquiring a commercial dimension. One key element is the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, bringing gas from Azerbaijan to central Europe, and probably from the giant South Pars field in Iran through Turkey to Europe. … In this new decade, it seems that the politics of supplying natural gas to the Europeans are likely to eclipse the importance of traditional oil as the touchstone to Middle East politics, which makes a shifting center of gravity toward the northern tier even more likely.

For more about Turkey ascendant, see John Feffer’s Foreign Policy in Focus piece Stealth Superpower.