Monday, May 9, 2011
Summer war in the Middle East?
Spring has come to the Middle East - not the Arab spring, unfortunately - and it is time for the annual billion-dollar question: will there be a big summer war? Indeed, it is a question worth multiple billions of dollars, as it has been codified into an elaborate ritual featuring ever-shifting alliances, "incidents", threats, ever-accelerating arms procurement, and (surprise?) large speculative bets on the financial markets.
Big military campaigns in the Middle East have historically happened during or around the summer. With some exceptions, this continues to be true today, for a variation of the same historic reasons - the weather is best, meaning that air power is most efficient and ground maneuvers by large forces are easier, and the harvest has largely been collected, meaning that manpower is more readily available and war poses a lesser challenge to the national economies.
Thus, every spring politicians, investors and pundits become unusually restless and try to predict - if not determine - what will happen. It is a flare-up of activity in a game of intricate tactics and strategies, where war and politics form a full, endless circle. The game includes risky bets, secret maneuvers and intense though usually short bouts of violence (hardly any major war in the Levant since 1948 has lasted for longer than a month, mostly because of the enormous costs of modern warfare and resupply issues).
This year, the game inventory is extraordinarily rich: among other plots, a great Arab revolution, a (much discussed) great Arab counter-revolution, a growing crisis in the Persian Gulf within the context of worsening Sunni-Shi'ite relations across the Middle East, a Palestinian declaration of independence looming by September if not earlier, and a speculative "war in or with Israel", to quote American think-tank Stratfor, as "a major wild card that could destabilize the area further".
The stakes are high, too: the metaphoric gunpowder keg is stacked full. Having in mind the massive arms buildup in the region during the past few years, we can expect any large conflict to be unusually brutal. Israeli military planners have predicted that hundreds of missiles will rain on Tel Aviv (mostly from Syria and Lebanon), and have issued grim warnings that they will do whatever it takes to curtail the fire. The Israeli home front - indeed, every home front in the region - will likely be hit particularly severely.
But human life and dignity often have a relative rather than absolute value in this region and this game. At best, individuals are expected to sacrifice dearly, and regularly, for the sake of a defensive effort; at worst, they are nothing but a cheap expendable resource - as cheap, even, as public relations capital can come. Nothing illustrates this better than the use of human shields and the deliberate positioning of large groups of civilians near military installations.
A lot of money is certainly at stake. Gold and silver have reached an all-time high, while oil is above $110/barrel and, according to many analysts, heading higher. This is by no means entirely due to the Middle East; much of it is due to the global financial crisis and inflationary pressures on all the major currencies (according to Stratfor, the global money supply has "roughly doubled" since 2005). A large part of it, however, is due to speculation, and a lot of that centers on the political and military volatility in the Middle East.
Gold and silver, in particular, are seen as a safe asset in times of financial and political upheaval, while oil prices are particularly sensitive to developments in the region. "When we ask why the price of oil is surging, the idea of geopolitical risk does come to mind," writes Stratfor in another report. "It is not a foolish speculation."
There is certainly much to worry about. Most recently, the Syrian regime pulled out all the stops in its repression of domestic unrest, burying any show of reform. "A gap exists between the desires of the people and the government's positions," Syria's President Bashar al-Assad acknowledged a week or so ago, and then promptly proceeded to fill that gap with bullets. His severe distress is measured by hundreds of protesters gunned down and mowed by tanks.
This is bad news for almost everybody in the region, from Turkey to Iran to Israel. What is worst is that now a complete collapse of the country into anarchy cannot be ruled out. This is not a certain outcome, and it would depend largely on whether large-scale defections in the army emerge in the future.
It would mean, among other things, that thousands of medium-ranged missiles and countless other arms could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, Hamas, Kurdish militants (Kurdish Workers' Party - PKK), and other rogue actors. Many of the missiles reportedly have chemical warheads.
There are several other micro-crises that are brewing: in Libya, the United States felt compelled to send two armed Predator drones on a "humanitarian" mission (talk about irony). The coalition has become so desperate that it apparently tried - unsuccessfully - to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi. "Uncle Curly," as the rebels call the colonel, responded with yet another change of tactics and pulled his forces out of the city of Misrata, only to intensify the conflict in the mountainous areas in the west of Libya.
In Yemen, a vague deal between the protesters and the opposition is reported to have emerged, but sources report that the situation continues to be extremely volatile. It is a country where Islamic militancy has long and convoluted roots, where tribalism is strong and where the interests of several regional powers (most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran) intersect.
The real nexus of the intrigue, however, lies in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, where Saudi Arabia and Iran battle each other, if indirectly for now. This also puts into perspective the Syrian crisis as well: Syria is a major ally of Iran, and a linchpin of Iranian influence and deterrence in the Levant.
Moreover, the Iranian leaders are unlikely to have forgotten their own protesters, and are concerned they could be next in line after Assad. As Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff points out, "In Iran, the specter of Assad's fall is a real concern, not only because Tehran is an important ally, but also because of the ramifications this would have for future protest against the Iranian regime."
While it is far from clear that Saudi Arabia is stirring trouble in Syria (the kingdom has been accused more often of being a major counter-revolutionary force in the region than an instigator) the Saudis stand to gain much if they exploit the crisis adeptly. They also stand to lose much if Assad survives the crisis but gravitates further into the Iranian orbit. We can expect them to get more involved in Syria soon, if they aren't already.
Conversely, Iran may not be the only force behind the protests in Bahrain and Yemen, but both are particularly sensitive spots for Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic is clearly trying to make the best out of the trouble there. Two other hot spots where Saudi and Iranian interests intersect particularly sharply are Iraq and Lebanon.
A major intrigue is unfolding in Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States. The Saudi king is upset with the way President Barack Obama treated his friend and ally in Egypt, ex-president Hosni Mubarak, but beyond that, the Saudis seem intent on drawing the Americans into a war with Iran. They have gathered a coalition of Persian Gulf states to turn the heat up on Iran - most notably, in Bahrain - while simultaneously piling pressure on the United States to interfere on their side.
According to Stratfor, Tuesday's visit to Washington by the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, most likely focused on the latter issue. "We obviously cannot know what the UAE is going to ask the United States for," Stratfor writes, "but we would be surprised if it wasn't for a definitive sign that the United States was prepared to challenge the Iranian rise in the region".
One of the most important battle grounds in the region is Iraq. Stratfor sees the gradual American pullout from the country as a major source of instability. "Not coincidentally, the withdrawal of American forces has coincided with tremendous instability in the region, particularly on the Arabian Peninsula," the think-tank writes.
The assumption - likely correct - is that Iran seeks to be the dominant power in the Gulf, and that there are no local powers that can truly challenge it. As American presence recedes in Iraq, Iranian influence expands, and this will gradually destabilize further, covertly if not overtly, all the other countries. Bahrain is an extreme example, since it has a majority Shi'ite population, but other countries, including Saudi Arabia, have sizeable Shi'ite minorities as well.
There is an "or else" side to the Saudi pleas with Washington. Recently, reports surfaced that a former ace of Saudi Arabian diplomacy, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had returned to the spotlight. He is infamous in Washington for allegedly having threatened years ago, "It is a mistake to think that our people will not do what is necessary to survive, and if that means we move to the right of [Osama] bin Laden, so be it; to the left of Gaddafi, so be it; or fly to Baghdad and embrace Saddam [Hussein] like a brother, so be it."
"Bandar's formidable skills in the service of a Saudi Arabia that feels itself increasingly cornered and unable to rely on US protection is a formula for trouble - made even worse when the likes of Pakistan and China are thrown into the mix," writes John Hannah in Foreign Policy. Among other scenarios, if its bid to rally American support fails, Saudi Arabia could seek to arm itself with missiles or weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent, Hannah suggests, or at least enlist Pakistani military muscle for the fight against Iran.
The latter scenario deserves more attention, as it ties in with earlier reports by Syed Saleem Shahzad that Pakistan may find itself at the front lines of a major Shi'ite-Sunni conflagration. "A step in this direction is Pakistan's decision to keep two army divisions on standby for deployment to Saudi Arabia in the event of a Middle East war," Shahzad writes.
The Obama administration seems poised to react cautiously and meekly, as has become its habit in foreign policy. Recently, Stratfor reports, the United States told the Iraqi government that if it wants any American military presence on its territory after December 31 2011, it must request it "quickly". The think-tank writes:
What is actually going on is that the United States is urging the Iraqi government to change its mind on US withdrawal, and it would like Iraq to change its mind right now in order to influence some of the events taking place in the Persian Gulf ... The Iraqi government's response to the American offer has been predictable ... It is not clear that the Iraqis were ever prepared to allow US troops to remain, but 20,000 is enough to enrage Iran and not enough to deal with the consequences.
Stratfor speculates that the United States - and likely Saudi Arabia - might seek rapprochement with Iran for lack of better alternatives, but that step is dangerous and difficult to imagine, too. First of all, it is unclear that the Iranian leadership is sufficiently unified to strike a deal. Secondly, the current developments simply don't point to a peaceful resolution, and the tensions have escalated to a point where it would be difficult to deescalate them.
Iran just announced that it has been targeted by a second computer virus, named "Stars" (after an attack with the virus "Stuxnet" wreaked havoc in its nuclear enrichment program months ago). Israel has fallen silent on the Iranian issue after issuing many threats through last year, instead ramping up its rhetoric against Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. This can indicate resignation, but can also be a deceptive maneuver of a kind that has become a trademark of Israeli military strategists.
The brief showdown in Gaza a few weeks ago bruised Hamas considerably and increased Israel's deterrence, while the publication of detailed maps of Hezbollah positions in residential areas of south Lebanon was widely interpreted as a warning and a preparation of global public opinion for a campaign there. It was followed by muted threats of massive retaliation if Hezbollah were to attack Israel - one scenario that includes such an attack is an Israeli or American campaign against Iran.
Israel is hardly in a position to attack Iran, and for now seems content to let Saudi Arabia draw most of the heat in the fight against the Islamic Republic. However, it could be forced into action if, for example, it perceives itself as being isolated by a Saudi-American-Iranian rapprochement.
In addition, the Benjamin Netanyahu government has promised to tackle the Iranian nuclear program, and has been put under considerable domestic and international pressure recently. Most importantly, the Palestinians seem intent on declaring a state soon, with or without Israeli consent, and as Netanyahu is pulled apart by his broad coalition, he might choose to escalate the Iranian front instead, as a way of rallying support. According to Israeli journalist Amir Oren, the spectacular successes of the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system near Gaza could help Netanyahu justify an attack on Iran domestically.
As a whole, a major war is hardly a certainty this summer, but the Middle East is certain to continue being a very dynamic area that catalyses the clash of powerful interests and speculations. At the very least, unrest and brutal repression will most likely simmer in the region for quite some time to come.