Nearing the Point of No Return: A Region in Disarray
The Middle East has always been one of the most conflict ridden regions of the world. However, in the past decade, we’ve seen an already unstable region become a powder keg waiting to ignite. Are we reaching a point of no return that would see the region be completely engulfed in violence and bloodshed?
There were two major factors that I believe led to this increased destabilization of the region. The first being the Arab Spring, which started in the 2010s with Arab populations throughout the Middle East rising up against their authoritarian and oppressive regimes. The people took to the streets all across the Middle East fighting for a better standard of living, and their movements’ success were fueled by the power of social media. As a result of the Arab Spring, the region erupted with conflict; the Syrian Civil War, emergence of ISIS, Iraqi insurgency, toppling of two governments in Egypt, Libyan Civil War, and the ongoing crisis in Yemen, just to name a few. Many of these conflicts are still ongoing a decade later.
The Arab Spring not only toppled several governments and sparked civil wars, but it turned these domestic conflicts into regional proxy wars. Take Syria for example, what started as a civil war between the Syrian people against the regime of Al-Assad, turned into a proxy war between Iran and the Arab Gulf nations, another flashpoint for Kurdish-Turkey tensions, and with Russia’s involvement another power play between the U.S. and Russia fighting for regional dominance. Suddenly, this domestic conflict saw international forces from competing countries and interests flood into Syria and wreak havoc on the war torn country. As the fighting in Syria comes to a close with the regime regaining most of its territory (thanks to the Russian bombing campaign and support of Iranian forces), as well as the defeat of ISIS, the road to reconciliation is far from fruition. Each collective side with its own agenda has carved out territory in Syria with no intent on giving it up. Iran remains entrenched in the Syrian Golan Heights to use as a new forward operating base to strike Israel. Russia has built airbases and a large naval base that it doesn’t intend on leaving any time soon. Turkey has occupied a large chunk of territory in Northern Syria to keep Kurdish forces away from its border and providing protection to the remaining rebel forces.
In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, you have Iranian-backed forces strengthening Iran’s footprint as the Islamic Republic seeks to assert itself as a regional power. In addition to its forces in Syria, Turkey has sent troops to support the Libyan government, and is carrying out bombing campaigns of Kurdish territory in Iraq. Russia is also jumping into the Libyan conflict, backing the forces of General Haftar who is challenging the UN-recognized government of Libya. These ongoing conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya don’t seem to be drawing to a close any time in the near future.
The second factor that helped ignite the region was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iranian Nuclear Agreement, signed in 2015 by Iran and P5 +1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, Germany and the European Union). The JCPOA was meant to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for relaxed sanctions on the Iranian regime, and was a cornerstone of President Obama’s foreign policy. The proponents of the JCPOA argued that with sanctions on the Iranian regime, they would come to the table to abandon their nuclear ambitions and become a more stable force in the region. Opponents of the agreement doubted Iran’s sincerity in adhering to the agreement and were concerned about other Iranian bad behavior not covered under the agreement (the sponsorship of terror groups, destabilization efforts throughout the region, domestic human rights concerns, and ballistic missile research). There were also concerns that the immediate easing of sanctions would give a $150 billion cash flow to the Iranians, which opponents argued would be used to fund Iran’s regional proxies (Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen). They were right, and since the signing of the agreement, Iran has become increasingly aggressive in the region and moving full speed ahead to establish a Shia Crescent with their power stretching from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Iran, and additional territory in Yemen. This crescent was created to directly challenge and threaten Iran’s arch nemesis, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies.
President Trump upended this agreement when he unilaterally withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018. Since the U.S. exited the agreement, Iran has stopped complying with it completely. They have increased their levels of uranium enrichment and continue to pour millions of dollars into their regional expansion campaign, despite growing domestic opposition at home. In November of 2019, you saw mass protests across Iran by a people who were feeling increasingly alienated by the rest of the world and carrying the heavy burden of new sanctions imposed on the regime. Iran violently put down the protests, killing as many as 1,500 protestors without much rebuke from the international community. Tensions between Iran and the U.S. came to a boiling point with the American strike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Qasem Soleimani in January.
As Iran’s strength and territory grows throughout the Middle East, and their non-compliance with the JCPOA, the Sunni Gulf states have become increasingly worried. There have been several missile attacks from Houthi-controlled Yemeni that have caused significant damage in Saudi Arabia, including the targeting of two main oil refineries. As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates watch Iran’s power grow, they have resorted to developing their own deterrent to Iran. Recently, the Jerusalem Post reported that Saudi Arabia has started enriching uranium that can be used for nuclear weapons with the finance and support of China. What we are starting to witness is one of the fears that opponents of the JCPOA warned us about, the start of a nuclear arms race in an increasingly volatile region. If Saudi Arabia is able to acquire nuclear weapons, it will only be a matter of time before the other major Sunni Gulf states attain their own weapons as well. This type of dangerous nuclear proliferation could very easily spell catastrophe.
Between the ongoing regional proxy wars and the potential for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it seems that we are nearing a point of no return. Without a change of course and stabilization in the region, we may witness this powder keg igniting the region in some of the worst bloodshed and violence in modern history, which would bring a whole new set of challenges for Israel.
There is an argument to be made that much of these problems could have been avoided had there been a strong U.S. presence in the region. However, under the current administration, you have seen American forces largely withdrawn from the region and American leadership absent, even as some of its allies prepare to face off against one another in these regional conflicts.
However, this an election year, and there is a chance that you could see a change in the American administration come next January. Perhaps, there is a sliver of hope left to walk back from the dangerous brink the region has found itself on, but we won’t know until November 3rd. Can the region avoid igniting until then? Only time will tell.