Friday, November 28, 2014

The New and Improved Balance of Power in the Middle East

George Friedman of Stratfor has written an insightful article describing the new balance of power among the regional powers in the Middle East. With the rise of the “Islamic State”, in parts of territorial Syria and Iraq, the new reality of having the “Islamic State” in their backyards has caused a new dynamic among virtually all the nations in the region.

The Islamic State Reshapes the Middle East:

Ideologically, there is little difference between the Islamic State and other radical Islamic jihadist movements. But in terms of geographical presence, the Islamic State has set itself apart from the rest. While al Qaeda might have longed to take control of a significant nation-state, it primarily remained a sparse, if widespread, terrorist organization. It held no significant territory permanently; it was a movement, not a place. But the Islamic State, as its name suggests, is different. It sees itself as the kernel from which a transnational Islamic state should grow, and it has established itself in Syria and Iraq as a geographical entity. The group controls a roughly defined region in the two countries, and it has something of a conventional military designed to defend and expand the state's control. Thus far, whatever advances and reversals it has seen, the Islamic State has retained this character. While the group certainly funnels a substantial portion of its power into dispersed guerrilla formations and retains a significant regional terrorist apparatus, it remains something rather new for the region - an Islamist movement acting as a regional state.

In the next paragraph, Friedman notes that “it is unclear whether the Islamic State can survive”. This is the key to the whole ball of wax. The current borders of Iraq were drawn in the midst of World War I, by two European diplomats, with a less-than-perfect understanding of the interplay of the region.

Today, there are three major regional players: Turkey, which has a virulent new neighbor on its south border, Iran, which now sees the U.S. as a key ally in the struggle, and Saudi Arabia, which is wary of the new US-Iranian “friendship”.

There are also several other less important players in the region. These include Israel (not mentioned in the article, probably because they are functioning as more of an interested observer than actual player), Syria, where Assad has managed to strengthen his hand despite the opposition, and the Kurds, who are generally reliable and clear-thinking in response to this challenge.

Friedman suggests that some sort of “coalition” among these countries is necessary:

The Islamic State has created a vortex that has drawn in regional and global powers, redefining how they behave. The group's presence is both novel and impossible to ignore because it is a territorial entity. Nations have been forced to readjust their policies and relations with each other as a result. We see this inside of Syria and Iraq. Damascus and Baghdad are not the only ones that need to deal with the Islamic State; other regional powers - Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia chief among them - need to recalculate their positions as well. A terrorist organization can inflict pain and cause turmoil, but it survives by remaining dispersed. The Islamic State has a terrorism element, but it is also a concentrated force that could potentially expand its territory. The group behaves geopolitically, and as long as it survives it poses a geopolitical challenge.

Within Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State represents elements of the Sunni Arab population. It has imposed itself on the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq, and although resistance to Islamic State power certainly exists among Sunnis, some resistance to any emergent state is inevitable. The Islamic State has managed to cope with this resistance so far. But the group also has pressed against the boundaries of the Kurdish and Shiite regions, and it has sought to create a geographical link with its forces in Syria, changing Iraq's internal dynamic considerably.

Where the Sunnis were once weak and dispersed, the Islamic State has now become a substantial force in the region north and west of Baghdad, posing a possible threat to Kurdish oil production and Iraqi governance. The group has had an even more complex effect in Syria, as it has weakened other groups resisting the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, thereby strengthening al Assad's position while increasing its own power. This dynamic illustrates the geopolitical complexity of the Islamic State's presence….

In the end, it is unlikely that the territorial Islamic State can survive. The truth is that Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all waiting for the United States to solve the Islamic State problem with air power and a few ground forces. These actions will not destroy the Islamic State, but they will break the group's territorial coherence and force it to return to guerrilla tactics and terrorism. Indeed, this is already happening. But the group's very existence, however temporary, has stunned the region into realizing that prior assumptions did not take into account current realities.

Not long ago, it was reported that “jihadis” are traveling to this “Islamic State” to support the cause. The net effect, I think, is that it is reducing the terror threats around the world, while enforcing a kind of alliance on the other, traditionally non-friendly powers in the region. While no one is happy about the “Islamic State”, it’s presence is having a beneficial effect in the region and around the globe.

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