THE GEOPOLITICS OF MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT AND CRISIS
By Barry Rubin
An especially neglected aspect is Middle East politics’ geopolitical and realpolitik bedrock, including what might be called the regional system’s more ‘normal’ rather than distinctive aspects. Properly understanding these factors–and integrating them with other features–helps us better grasp the present and more ably assess the future.
Many Western experts, journalists, and politicians implicitly believe that Middle East politics are primarily shaped by ideology. Ironically, this view accepts the claims of pan-Arab nationalism (or radical Islamic groups) that all Arabs (or Muslims) want to unite and that they set their policy mainly based on the Palestinian issue and inter-Arab (or Islamic) solidarity. Consequently, U.S. and European policy must satisfy their grievances or the Arab states will switch to an anti-American (Soviet or radical nationalist or revolutionary Islamic) camp. The West’s task is to show the Arabs that it is not against their aspirations. To achieve this goal, Western concessions are vital, pressure is counterproductive, and time is of the essence. In practice, this often means constructing a strategy to appease the dictators who rule many of these states.
Paradoxically, a parallel concept is held by Israel’s right-wing, including the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Arab world is seen as relatively unchanging due to ideological factors deeply rooted in political culture. Since Arab states (and Muslims) will not cease trying to destroy Israel, then real peace is impossible, any Israeli concessions are dangerous, and it is better to hold onto territories rather than seek a compromise solution.
While there is evidence for this standpoint in the region’s political rhetoric, there is far less proof of these concepts in its history. Indeed, no one knows better than the disappointed radical Arab nationalist intellectuals that reality has been quite different from the expectations of the 1950s and 1960s, when pan-Arab nationalism seemed to be the wave of the future and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had established himself as the leading Arab figure.
Indeed, the region’s history has been far more characterized–and increasingly so over time–by regimes and states seeking their own self-interest, whatever smokescreens are used to conceal or rationalize this fact. And each state has its own specific pattern of behavior and alignments, often sustained over multiple rulers.
For decades, too, Arab states have been retreating from active involvement in the Palestinian issue. By the early 1980s, the USSR was already an unattractive superpower sponsor and moderate states were eager to obtain U.S. protection. However much bloodshed has been incurred by revolutionary Islamic movements, they have only achieved success in Iran and Sudan–places geographically and ethnically marginal to the Arab world.
Of course, despite the–often surprising for outsiders–power of continuity, a number of significant global and regional events have changed the Middle East in recent years, opening a new era there. The USSR’s collapse and U.S.’s rise to sole superpower status has greatly weakened radical forces, as has Iraq’s defeat in Kuwait and breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. The Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole and radical Arab nationalism’s appeal has declined sharply. Individual Arab states are far freer to state and seek their interests. Free enterprise and the pursuit of economic development have become higher priorities.
These developments have made all the more clear that a conceptual framework for understanding Middle East international relations is remarkably lacking. Several key principles based on realpolitik and geopolitics are indispensable to make sense of or predict the region’s political course. (1)
THE DRIVE FOR HEGEMONY
In every continent there have been states, regimes, and ideologies that have sought region-wide domination. In Africa and South America, such efforts has only a limited effect on post-colonial history. The United States arguably succeeded in its ‘manifest destiny’ to dominate North America. In contrast, major elements of Asian and European history are related to drives for hegemony over the centuries. Various ideologies masked the imperialism of individual states; wars erupting for local reasons nonetheless reflected this longer-term competition for primacy.
During the last half-century, however, the Middle East was the part of the world where belief in the prospect of regional hegemony played the greatest role in both public opinion and in the ambitions, actions, and relations of states. Moreover, in a pattern recalling the historic international Communist movement, revolutionary groups under pan-Arab nationalist or revolutionary Islamic banners struggled to seize state power and to unite the region ostensibly from below, though often with an imperialist-minded regime’s sponsorship.
Between the mid-1950s and the early 1990s, the Arab candidates for regional power or sub-regional domination and their smaller neighbors waged a costly and sometimes disastrous struggle in which tens of thousands of people died, huge amounts of resources were wasted, economic development was slowed and living standards held back. Progress toward democracy stagnated and Arab intellectual life was crippled by these obsessions. The Palestinian cause, supposedly the focus and beneficiary of Arab cooperation, became a playground for this competition which added to Palestinian suffering and delayed any solution. In the end, the West was not expelled; Israel was not destroyed.
The candidates for hegemony were mainly Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. While there are many reasons for their role–including their relatively larger territory, populations, and level of development–in ancient times, too, the candidates for regional control were empires centered in places offering the necessary resource base for such ambition: the Nile Valley (Egypt) and Fertile Crescent (Syria and Iraq).
In more recent times, these states were influenced by the sultanate which united the region under various Arab regimes for many centuries (and kept it much of it together as a unit under Turkish rulers for additional centuries). But explicitly, they referred to the unification of Germany and Italy in 1871 under nationalist auspices. Just as Prussia and Piedmont engineered the creation of much larger states by appealing to an ethno-linguistic nationalism (rather than an explicit doctrine of imperialism), so would Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad strive to gain regional power under the banner of Arab nationalism.
Libya, under its idiosyncratic leader Muammar al-Qadhafi, has boosted its candidacy with far less credibility. Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has used revolutionary Islam toward the same end, though one could argue that a nominally religious doctrine is also used as an instrument to further Iranian nation-state ambitions.
The eagerness of countries to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, their ability to justify such interventions, and the lower legitimacy of relatively young Arab states–alongside problems of nation-building and economic development–contributed to the region’s famous (sometimes overstated) instability. Certainly, both the motive and technique of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, an adventure that cost the Gulf Arab monarchies over $150 billion and severely damage Iraq itself, was the most recent manifestation of this drive.
Contrary to many Arabs’ perceptions, Israel and Turkey are the only ones among the area’s stronger states that have definitively denounced regional or subregional conquest. The whole structure of regional rivalry feeds Arab suspicions that the region’s non-Arab states are engaged in the same great game. But while Iran’s revolutionary Islamic doctrine is an ideology seeking regional leadership, Turkish and Israeli nationalism do not have this goal.
Kemal Ataturk’s insistence that Turkey’s existing borders be kept is one of that country’s most basic principles. Israel is heatedly arguing over whether to claim most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip or to turn most of that territory over to the Palestinians in a peace settlement. Yet there is no interest in claiming any other places and no illusion that Israel could dominate a region so much more populous, ethnically different, and even now fairly hostile. (2)
While dominating the Middle East, Arab world, or Islamic world was objectively–but one should quickly add not necessarily subjectively–beyond any single state’s capacity, a more immediate and practical goal was to gain control over part of the area. This is the situation regarding Syria’s claim to a sphere of influence in ‘Greater Syria’ and the competition for hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
As mentioned above, the Fertile Crescent is a geographic unit. In addition, Syria’s borders are arguably arbitrary and contain potentially quarreling ethnic groups. The fact that Syria lacks a geopolitical or historical rationale on its own is a key reason for its relatively strong pan-Arabist and anti-status quo bent. As it is, Syria seems to be a fragment. If Syria has a destiny, it is to become the core of an empire. Such factors have shaped Syrian political life since the 1930s and under sharply different regimes.
While Syria does have ambitions over fellow Ba’thist Iraq, its search for a sphere of influence focuses on those who are weaker or whose legitimacy it does not accept–Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Indeed, Syria has never even recognized Lebanon, Israel or Palestine as states. Between 1948 and 1998, Syria made scores of efforts to undermine and take over all of them.
Indeed, Syria does dominate Lebanon and occupies a large portion of its national territory. It might well have invaded Jordan in 1970 if not for U.S. and Israeli counterthreats. Syria created its own Palestinian groups and on several occasions tried to seize control of the PLO, eventually driving it out of Lebanon. Today, Palestinian exiles and groups in Syria and Lebanon are largely under Syrian control. President Hafiz al-Asad and other Syrian leaders have denied a Palestinian right to self-determination, saying Palestine is ‘southern Syria.’
The wars and hostility toward Israel must also be seen in the context of Syrian national interest. Indeed, Syria-Israel rivalry is inevitable even without an Arab-Israeli conflict. A comprehensive Middle East peace, which would bring Israel’s emergence as a relatively normal regional player, would be devastating for Syria’s national interest. This very factor shapes Damascus’s refusal to make peace.
For example, Israel would compete with Syria for influence regarding Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. Israel’s ally, the United States, would become even more powerful and able to block Syrian ambitions. Establishment of a Palestinian state–under Egyptian, U.S.,and potentially Saudi patronage–would undercut Syria’s ability to play the Palestinian card or hope to take control over that people.
While the status quo is not good for Syria, growing regional stability is even worse. Without its own radical posture and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria has no marginal advantage as a candidate for Arab leadership. On the contrary, it would become a third-rate power which must follow either Egypt or Iraq, perhaps even fall prey to its domestic conflicts. Thus, Syria’s general policy is conditioned by its geopolitical situation.
The Persian Gulf triangle
The Persian Gulf area contains about 40 percent of current oil production, 60 percent of reserves, and huge amounts of natural gas as well. In strategic terms, the area is a triangle. Two more populous, stronger states–Iran and Iraq–compete for hegemony there, as empires based on that territory have done since ancient times. The triangle’s third leg, the Gulf Arab monarchies, are far weaker. Despite their wealth, a smaller population and lower degree of development make them vulnerable to domination from Tehran or Baghdad.
To avoid losing their independence, the Gulf Arab monarchies have pursued three basic strategies: appeasement (verbal support and financial subsidies), allying with Iran or Iraq against the more threatening state, or seeking an outside protector. Despite massive arms purchases and the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council as a defensive alliance, the monarchies could never really defend themselves. Consequently, they were always cautious, avoiding any step that might intensify their sovereignty’s shakiness. For example, between Iraq’s 1958 and Iran’s 1979 revolutions, the Gulf Arab states voiced pan-Arab nationalist support and sent checks to Iraq while depending on Iran’s Shah to defend them. From 1979 to 1990, they used Iraq to protect them from radical Islamic Iran.
As an outsider to the largely Arab and Sunni Muslim makeup of the Gulf, Persian and Shia Muslim Iran has several options to find a rationale for its subregional role. Under the Shah, it was a solidarity of the moderates against radical regimes. With the Islamic regime, it takes the form of a revolutionary Muslim unity from below, though this often has special appeal for the Shia minorities in the Arab states. That regime often appealed for the overthrow of the Arab monarchies, driving the latter toward both Iraq and the United States in the 1980s.
And then came Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait in 1990. The game had become too dangerous. Even massive appeasement–strong support for Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq war and billions of dollars in aid–had not deterred Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from aggression. Saddam talked of Arab nationalism but his real ideology was Iraqi imperialism. He needed Kuwait’s oil money to make up for what Iraq had lost in its costly war to gain Gulf hegemony by defeating Iran. Yet he was also building an Iraqi nationalism–and seeking loot–to knit together his country’s fragmented Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish groups.
The crisis was a real test of pan-Arabism’s validity and it was found wanting. While public opinion in some countries was enthusiastic, few governments were pleased at the prospect of being eliminated and, in the Gulf Arab’s case, the citizenry did not like the prospect of being looted. No amount of talk about Arab solidarity, Islamic brotherhood, or the Palestinian issue’s urgency could mask the fact that Saudi and Kuwaiti interests profoundly conflict with those of Iran or Iraq.
The Gulf Arab monarchies’ willingness to seek U.S. protection was extended and made more open by Saddam’s invasion. But they had long pursued this option: buying U.S. military equipment, asking the U.S. navy to convoy tankers and protect them from Iranian attack. U.S.-Israel relations were no barrier to cooperation because their own survival was at stake. Rhetorical protestations to the contrary, they wanted the United States to hit Iran harder in the 1980s and to act toughly against Iraq in the 1990s. Consequently, when U.S. policy pushed the still-born 1991 Damascus Declaration–in which Gulf Arab states agreed to Egyptian and Syrian troops protecting them–accepting the myth that they preferred fellow Arabs. But the Saudis and Kuwaitis did not trust Cairo’s and Damascus’s ambitions. They wanted the best bodyguard money could buy.
Today, the Gulf Arab states continue the old pattern, but now swinging back to an Iran which portrays itself as more moderate as a shield against Saddam’s continued threat. In a fascinating way, Israel has become a minor factor in that process. The Gulf monarchies most eager to rebuild relations with Iran–Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates–are also most open to links with Israel in order to deter Iran and ensure them more independence from Saudi control. Realpolitik, not ideological enthusiasm, is the foundation of Gulf politics.
Egypt’s geopolitical situation made it the logical leader of the Arab world. But Nasser’s long effort to play this role led to disaster for his own country.(3) When Egypt’s interests called for it, President Anwar al-Sadat made peace with Israel without consulting fellow Arabs or taking into account their protests.
After the Arab boycott against it ended, Egypt returned in the mid-1980s with a new strategy. Egyptian primacy would be ensured by moderation and consensus-building rather than by revolutionary conquest or militant intimidation. Cairo had better ways of trying to balance the region to its own benefit by being patron of the Palestinians and Arab-Israeli peace process as well as broker between the United States and also Israel with the Arab world. It would carefully ensure that Syria and Saudi Arabia were kept cooperative. When Iraq challenged the Arab world’s order, Egypt mobilized most of the other states against Baghdad and for an all-out coalition with the United States. While events did not always work out to Egypt’s satisfaction, this basic approach worked fairly well.
Egypt’s strategy was as much shaped by geopolitical and historical factors as were the Syrian, Iraqi, or Saudi roles in the region. Its geographical coherence and relative homogeneity, large population, and long history as an independent entity allowed it a freedom of action and influence beyond that of any other Arab country.
STRONG STATES AND THE WEAK STATES
Rulers wish to stay in power; countries want to remain in existence. Regimes may hire suicide bombers but they will not themselves commit suicide Just as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia refused to be sacrificed to Iraq’s version of Arab nationalism, other smaller, weaker states have to maneuver among their powerful neighbors’ ambitions.
Jordan was small in size and population; sandwiched between Iraq, Syria, and Israel; and fated by location–and after 1948 demography, too–to be tied closely to the Palestinian issue. Nasser’s Egypt tried to overthrow the kingdom through internal subversion, and Saudi Arabia’s frequent hostility has denied Jordan financial aid. Thus, King Hussein’s skill in balancing the power equation is the reason for his long reign, and perhaps even for Jordan’s continued existence. Jordan’s current alliance with Israel responds especially well to a situation in which both Iraq and Syria are threatening.
Lebanon actually did succumb to the Syrian challenge. Traditionally, its extreme internal ethnic fragmentation made it simultaneously a playground for clashing foreign influences. The civil war, Palestinian involvement in internal politics, and Israeli interventions made it vulnerable to a Syrian occupation and takeover. Yet Lebanon also serves as a warning to other states whose dangerous ethnic rifts could lead to catastrophe for them.
In general, though, a largely rhetorical commitment to Arab solidarity, coupled with financial payoffs by those who could afford them, was their defense against the claims of stronger states and revolutionary movements that they must devote all their resources to the cause, be transformed socially and politically, and even be absorbed by more powerful neighbors.
Like the Gulf Arab monarchies, the smaller states were ready to seek U.S. and other Western support to guarantee survival against their Arab brothers. Equally, they were reluctant to be dragged into Arab-Israeli confrontations lest these destabilize them. It is interesting to note that the weaker Arab states are generally far more eager than the powerful ones to normalize relations with Israel. Equally, the stronger states–with the exception of Egypt which sees itself as managing the process–are far more reluctant or even hostile to better relations with the United States.
CORE NATION-STATE INTERESTS
Among individual Middle East countries, a distinct regional role and interest often transcends regime changes and alliance shifts. The governing forces are each countries’ location, contours, resource base, history, blend of population groups, and relative strength. Israel and Syria, for example, are bound to be competitors whether or not they ever sign a peace treaty. Equally, the Iraq-Iran competition over Gulf hegemony will continue in some form regardless of who is in power in Baghdad and Tehran.
Analysts, journalists, politicians and scholars must examine each state to understand its national and regime interests rather than accept the simplistic picture presented in the leaders’ public statements. The Middle East’s specific attributes are important and fascinating, but the region’s politics are not governed by a fanatical determination to destroy Israel, strike against the West, and drive toward some form of Arab or Islamic unity. Middle Eastern governments are also rational actors. The problem is to understand the specific frames of reference and interest which motivate them.
(1) This brief space does not permit laying out all the evidence and details of this analysis. These ideas are developed more fully in the author’s works, including Paved with Good Intentions; The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict; Cauldron of Turmoil; Revolution Until Victory?, Modern Dictators, and Essays on The Middle East’s New Era.
(2) It is interesting to note that the inability of two universalist religions–Christianity and Islam–to accept that Judaism was a far less ambitious faith focused exclusively on one people and one land has been a major source of antisemitism historically. In similar terms, pan-Arab nationalists and radical Islamists are prone to see in Zionism a mirror image of their goals.
(3) We now know that Nasser was far more cynical about pan-Arab unity than he appeared, seeking to manipulate it for Egypt’s benefit. But that fact reinforces this article’s argument.
Barry Rubin is Senior Resident Scholar at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and Editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His books include the forthcoming The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building (Harvard University Press) as well as: Essays on The Middle East’s New Era; Revolution Until Victory: The Politics and History of the PLO; Cauldron of Turmoil: America in the Middle East; Islamic Fundamentalism in Egyptian Politics; Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants; and Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran.
The Middle East is often dazzling in its dramatic daily events, colorful personalities, and passionately held ideologies. Apparently unique phenomena like the Arab-Israeli conflict or radical Islam overwhelm analytical senses, making the area either seem incomprehensible or ensuring that it can be seriously misunderstood.