Emerging Security Issues in the Middle East
American foreign policy in the Middle East has been adrift since the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The Bush administration pursued an interventionist policy that tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration tried to reduce the US military footprint in the region, with limited results, and extended an olive branch to Iran through its negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration attempted to get America out of “forever wars” but had limited success. The concern generated in the region by the perceived lack of US interest based on actual and promised troop reductions and the US failure to replace military presence with diplomatic leadership has created a power vacuum.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the Middle East. The absence of US leadership has provided opportunities for nations within the region and from outside to step in and provide presence and leadership, but on terms that are more focused on success for the individual nations or blocks than on the broader regional security and stability that is desired. For the first time in decades, Russia has bases in the region and China recently opened its first and only overseas base in Djibouti.
Throughout history, a number of nations in or near the Middle East have dominated – historic Egypt, the Persian and Ottoman Empires, and recently Saudi Arabia – the keeper of the two holy sites. Regional or even broader dominance is nothing new and not necessarily terrible, but when several nations or blocks of nations vie for regional dominance at the same time, security and stability are at risk. This is what’s currently happening in the Middle East. Three separate blocks are working hard to become the dominate force in the region and the keepers of security – in terms that they define.
The Saudi Led Block
Under the leadership of Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammad Bin Zayed (MBZ), the Saudis and Emiratis have, since 2014, led a block that at times have included at least Egypt, Bahrain, Sudan, and Pakistan. This block has been responsible for the interdiction in Yemen and the years-long blockade of Qatar. Not surprisingly, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman have not followed the lead of their GCC partners and the departure of President Trump appears to have diminished, at least for a time, the ability of this block to unify the region and provide the leadership necessary to ensure stability. It is important to note that Bahrain has remained a stalwart ally of the US and the host of the only US base in the region.
The Turkey Led Block
President Erdoghan has ruled Turkey since becoming prime minister in 2003 and has increasingly led his people away from western thinking. Turkey is a valued NATO ally, but has increasingly acted unilaterally, often times frustrating the US and other NATO partners. In particular, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S400 air defense system, at the expense of access to the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35), shows President Erdogan’s willingness to act independently. Qatar has made significant financial investment in Turkey and hosts a military base that can hold up to 5000 Turk troops.
The Iran Led Block
Since the revolution (and arguably before) Iran has maintained a keen interest in spreading its influence throughout the region. Today, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are actively conducting malign, destabilizing activities in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, The Arabian Gulf, The Arabian Sea, and The Gulf of Aden. While some of their activity is conducted publicly and with attribution, much is completed by proxies and is difficult to attribute directly to the regime.
Recent actions by the Biden administration to remove support to the Saudis in Yemen and review weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE puts some stress on the Saudi led block. Additionally, US and coalition efforts for the US and Iran return to the JCPOA and remove current sanctions further stresses the Saudi block and emboldens Iran.
Turkey can likely return to US and NATO good graces by crating up the S400s and sending them back to Russia. F-35s will flow to Turkey and the NATO alliance will be enhanced. While a more cooperative approach to its Eastern Mediterranean neighbors regarding new gas and oil finds would stabilize the area and improve Turkey’s image as a regional leader, Erdogan has not shown himself to be adept at the kind of diplomacy needed.
Even as the Turkey block grows in stature and the Saudi block appears to ebb, Iran will continue its malign activities. Regardless of the status of US or Iranian participation in the JCPOA, Iran will continue to be a source of instability, not a leader, in the region.Read more opinion articles