Pains of change in the Middle East

Pains of change in the Middle East

The Middle East went through similarly painful times almost a century ago. That was the dawn of the oil age and a time when three dynasties (Ottoman, Romanov and Habsburg) of three land empires (Turkey, Russia and Austria-Hungary) were falling apart.

The United States was newly emergent and not yet in the political outlook of the region. The British and the French were the dominant players against Germany, which was also striving to secure access to the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and the Caucasus.

In the years since, the biggest social engineering project of modern times, the Soviet Union, has risen and disintegrated. The Republic of Turkey, which few politicians of the European powers gave much chance to survive, has shown resilience and survived too, becoming one of the largest economies in the region despite lacking oil, gas and other energy resources. Iran, as one of the countries with a historic state tradition, also survived, despite the enormous trauma of the Islamic Revolution. Other rooted states, like Egypt, also survived in the Middle East, while in Europe artificial states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia ultimately collapsed in the 1990s. Founded in 1948, Israel is a relative newcomer but it has a tradition of state culture for thousands of years in the region and is now deep in the power game, thanks to the disproportionate support it gets from the U.S.

Now we are in a totally different world. We may be at the dawn of the digital age, but we are still not quite at the end of the oil age - oil and gas still matter. Two of the states in the Middle East that were established under British and French mandates after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq and Syria, today need international efforts from world powers (like the U.S. and Russia) and regional powers (like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia) to stay in one piece, despite the fact that these countries have their own natural oil and gas resources.

Today there is an incredible power vacuum in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq the U.S. (and ironically Iran) are supporting the Haydar al-Abadi government, trying to prevent the kind of collapse that could cause an implosion. In Syria, the same could be said for the Russian (and again Iranian) support for the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. There are four countries in the region around Syria and Iraq that have the military, political, economic and cultural potential to expand: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, it was the non-state actors that were first to act. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISID), following the footsteps of al-Qaeda, already nominated itself to fill the power gap by claiming statehood, though now it is on the verge of collapse. Now there are a number of Kurdish factions fighting for statehood. The Iraqi Kurds, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Syrian Kurds, led by the groups linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), now also want to take advantage of the power vacuum to claim statehood.

Unlike the official positions of almost all relevant powers in the game, Israel has thrown its support behind the idea of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. This comes at a delicate time, when Hamas in the Gaza Strip is in retreat due to the struggles of its backer Qatar, which is under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Egypt mainly because of its links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel may also be enjoying the new situation in which Turkey has toned down its policies regarding Syria and Palestine. Tel Aviv is currently able to show its teeth to Iran by supporting a non-Arab, Muslim but secular Kurdistan as a buffer zone on the border with Iran and Turkey. Such a state would make access to Israel more difficult and further weaken an Arab state, Iraq, at the same time. 

The picture is getting increasingly complicated, with the intrusion of another political actor every other day. And when too many actors are on the stage but there is no change in the official regional situation, it is rarely possible to see a smooth transition to solve problems. 

Unfortunately, the current state of affairs promises more pain in the near future with borders changing. Once borders start changing in the Middle East, no one can guess where and how they will stop, as was the case a century ago.