The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, ongoing civil wars in Syria, Iraq and now Yemen and the atrocities of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) can seem too complicated to understand. But all of this turmoil should be understood as part of a single epochal transition: The end of Pax Americana in the Middle East.
The U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East has created a vacuum that will be filled by both regional and global powers. Immediately stepping in is a thousand-year-old contest between a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a Shia coalition led by Iran and its frayed ally Syria.
Also into the turmoil comes the military authority of the Kremlin in league with the market powers of Europe and the rising power of China. Eventually in this century, India has ambition to join with Russia and China to construct a stable balance of power over the Eurasian supercontinent.
For now the Middle East is a rush of threatening headlines as the state and sub-state actors, such as tribes, warlords and militant groups, construct expedient alliances and choose sides.
The latest phase of the conflict began in late March, when Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the elected president of Yemen, fled to Riyadh to seek Saudi protection from advancing Houthi insurgents. When the Saudis entered the fight against the Tehran-backed Houthis, the Yemeni civil war became a new front in the larger sectarian war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
In addition to religious and ethnic concerns, Yemen is important in the region because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea. This geopolitical importance has led Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi to organize a joint Arab League force to supplement Saudi operations.
The many fissures between the league’s 22 members may well limit the degree of military cooperation, but the proposed force could encompass up to 40,000 troops with air and naval support. The military operations have so far consisted of steady Saudi-led airstrikes, carried out with American assistance in intelligence gathering and in-flight refueling.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the U.S. finds itself on the other side of the sectarian conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. Amid reports that the Iranian-led offensive against ISIL and its local Sunni allies stalled outside the large city of Tikrit, the Obama administration committed American airpower to reinforce the ineffective Iraqi army. On April 1, the city was finally liberated from ISIL.
American participation at Tikrit remains controversial, because the operation was likely led by General Ghasem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, commanding a wide array of Shia militia, some of whom were accused of killing Americans during the Iraq War.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke out in favor of the Saudi intervention in Yemen and suggested that Turkey may contribute troops in the future.
Beyond Tikrit, Iranian military and diplomatic influence is reported to heavily influence the Shia government in Baghdad. My sources tell me that the Shia militia’s rules of engagement at Tikrit include screening civilians in order to detain Sunni tribal leadership. This brutality has started to encounter resistance from the Sunni tribes in Anbar province, some of which are sympathetic to ISIL. As the sectarian conflict spreads, the Iraqi civil war will become more unpredictable and potentially even more intractable.
In Syria, where the civil war is now four years old, prospects for an entire generation have been destroyed, with millions of refugees now living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. The worst fallout from the failure of the Syrian state may be still to come. The Iranians, who adamantly support the Bashar al-Assad regime, are reportedly carving out a new front from Lebanon through the Golan Heights to Iraq. The Israeli Defense Force has watched with understandable alarm as a threatening Shia coalition, including Hezbollah fighters, has assembled along Israel’s northern border. Informed sources in Jerusalem suggest that the IDF may react with military force in the next few months if the threat continues to gather strength.
On the Sunni side, the new coalition that aims to fill the void left by the American withdrawal is led by Cairo and Riyadh, in smooth cooperation with Jerusalem. Their common interest is securing the area from the Red Sea to the Gulf.
The coalition’s military capabilities include the ability to attract support from NATO powers such as the United States and Turkey. Recently, the unpredictable Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke out in favor of the Saudi intervention in Yemen and suggested that Turkey may contribute troops in the future.
Russia has also sought to exert influence. Its main objective is to be seen as a force for stability in the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a letter to the Arab Summit in Cairo expressing support for the “resolution of the problems the Arab world faces through peaceful means, without any external interference.”
Significantly, the Saudi representative at the summit, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, rebuked Putin for supporting the Assad regime: “He speaks about the problems in the Middle East as though Russia is not influencing these problems.” The transition from American military hegemony to Russian infiltration may be slow and turbulent.
At the moment, the Iranian-led coalition that includes the Assad government in Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis and the Iraqi Shia militia appears to be ascendant. Iran is strengthened especially by both the appearance and the potential of the nuclear arms deal with Washington and the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.
The struggle to replace the United States as the hegemonic power in the Middle East did not begin with the conflict in Yemen, of course, but its resolution could drag on for decades, alternating between low-level fighting and catastrophic war depending on economic conditions and the vagaries of internal politics. It is even harder to predict how non-state actors such as Al Qaeda and ISIL will evolve.
One thing remains clear: There is no immediate credible replacement for Pax Americana.