Looking at what is going on in the Middle East, it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate between the leaders who are pulling the strings and those whose strings are being pulled. Some might say that it doesn’t matter since the end result is the same and others might claim that there is a symbiotic relationship between the players and the played in which the roles are fluidly changing all the time.
The players in the region can be lumped into 6 distinct groups:
- The active superpowers: countries who view the countries in the region as bases for proxy wars in their never-ending power struggles against each other – namely Russia and the USA.
- The regional enemies: countries in the region which are leading “alliances” of other countries in the region – namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.
- The regional followers: countries who are following the lead of the regional enemies – these include Lebanon, Iraq and Syria supporting Iran and the Gulf/Arab states supporting Saudi Arabia.
- The war zones: countries in the region which are ravaged by regional, civil and/or proxy wars – namely, Syria, Yemen and Israel/Palestine.
- The leading fence-sitters: countries who are looking to increase their influence in the region mainly for economic purposes – namely China and the EU.
- The opportunistic supporters: countries in the world willing to ally themselves to the regional enemies for economic, political, sectarian and/or religious purposes – Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Malaysia, Argentina, Cuba etc…
Let’s start with the active superpowers. It’s quite obvious that that Moscow has the upper hand over the US in the region for now: the retreat from Iraq and the nuclear deal with Iran, both led by President Obama, have antagonized regional allies and have definitely weakened Washington’s influence in the region while Moscow, under President Putin, on the other hand, has definitely stepped up its game to fill the vacuum. But this balance of power will soon lose its stability as President-elect Trump will take office. While Obama focused his efforts on changing the status quo of allies in the Middle East by forging the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump will most probably try to return to the US’s historical allies, Saudi Arabia. But for now at least, the balance of power is definitely in Moscow’s court.
As to the regional enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s quite obvious that, much like its big brother ally, Moscow, Tehran has the upper hand for now. With a nuclear deal which brought Iran out of its pariah status, with new found friends and allies, with trade delegations flying into Tehran to cash in on its market and with Bashar al-Assad on his way to winning the “civil” war in Syria, Tehran is definitely on a roll. Sure, nothing is perfect: Tehran has antagonized many, if not most, of the Arab countries, is watching on the sidelines as the Houthi rebels in Yemen are being crushed and worst of all, is still suffering from a weak economy. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, lost the warm support of the US, watched as the Syrian rebels it supported were defeated, is suffering from an all-time low in its economy and seems threatened by the possibility that Iran might one day build a nuclear bomb which will be aimed at Riyadh.
But the regional enemies would probably not be so adamant to fight out their fight in the war zones were it not for the regional followers which support them. In the case of Iran, Lebanon is a satellite state while Iraq and Syria are on their way to becoming satellite states as well. These are states which are content to follow in order to maintain strategic alliances. They might send a few troops to a war zone but they are mostly there for moral, economic and political support. Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran rhetoric would fall flat were it not for the support of the Arab League and the express support of many other Arab countries but these supporters are not yet ready to place their own soldiers in danger yet.
The war zones, specifically, Israel, Syria and Yemen, are where the conflicts surface beyond diplomatic tiffs or hate-filled and hate-inducing rhetoric. These are the areas where the agendas of the active superpowers and the regional enemies clash and explode and where people suffer the most: soldiers and civilians get hurt and killed, civilians live in fear or become refugees and life, on the whole, is on pause for most of the civilians. The leaders in these zones are playing for the visions they have of the countries that they lead and for their own political lives. In all three zones, foreign intervention from the active superpowers and the regional enemies is a basic part of the wars: Iran, for example, supports the Assad in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US, on the other hand, support the rebels in Syria, Israel and the Yemenite government. It’s all a big game in which civilians are used as collateral and winning is much more important than peace.
The fence-sitters embody the biggest question marks in the outcome of the conflicts in the region. China and the EU, for example, are trying to maintain alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Russia and with the US. They don’t want to take sides because taking a side might mean a lost opportunity. They want to profit from the situation. The EU will be selling passenger planes to Iran while China will supply Tehran with fighter jets. Money is the main impetus here and there is always a lot of money to be made from conflicts. For now, they are content to watch the active superpowers and the regional enemies fight it out without taking any side 100%. Oh sure, they feel bad about the victims of the war zones but not bad enough to really do something about it. But the fence-sitters are extremely important due to the potential of their loyalty – imagine if China were to openly ally itself with Iran – but it is exactly this potential which makes them more powerful. The active superpowers and the regional enemies are doing all they can to woo the fence-sitters to their sides but for now, the fence-sitters are doing what they do best: sit on the fence and gain power. For now, they are neither winning nor losing the game and retain their power by simply playing both sides.
And finally, there are the opportunistic supporters. Some are close by such as Turkey or India but some are much further away such as in Latin America. These countries are in the game for one of two reasons: making money or weakening a mutual enemy. Most of these supporters are not really interested in the conflicts in the war zones nor are they seriously worried about the outcome of these wars. They might have been lumped in with the regional followers or the leading fence-sitters but their level of involvement is so varied that it would not do justice to the other groups. They might choose one side or they might choose not to choose. They win if the regional enemy or the active superpower that they are supporting wins. Simple.
So here’s the score for now:
- Active superpowers: Russia beats US with a wide margin but everyone is waiting for Trump.
- The regional enemies: Iran beats Saudi Arabia with a wide margin but the game certainly isn’t over yet.
- The regional followers: One would think that the regional followers of Iran are winning but since two out of three are ravaged by war, winning doesn’t have too many benefits.
- The war zones: The government forces in Syria and in Yemen seem to be winning while Israel still has the upper hand.
- The leading fence-sitters and the opportunistic supporters: All countries which are making money or increasing their powers are winning regardless of the outcomes in the war-zones.
And then, there are the ultimate losers – the victims in the war zones and the citizens of the regional rivals whose economies are being extinguished by the costs of war. They are the ultimate pawns for the game played by the active superpowers and the regional enemies. They cannot win unless one side gives up and they can only hope that their side will win.