Spinning Out of Control
By Matt Ward
Many today believe that the Middle East stands on the very brink of all-out war: that huge regional chaos is just around the corner.
At present, the only real certainty in the Middle East is that nobody actually wants all-out war. Certainly, Donald Trump, coming into a re-election season, would at all costs wish to avoid the quagmire of another Middle Eastern conflict, one that would inevitably drag the United States back into a full military commitment from which it has only just managed to extricate itself.
Iran, despite bellicose rhetoric to the contrary, also does not want any kind of a region-wide confrontation with the United States or, indeed, Israel. Iran knows well that it would not win either of those wars.
Israel, for her part, seems to be more than happy maintaining the status quo, confining military operations to limited and controllable single-strike missions into Syria, Gaza and Lebanon, against a range of non-state proxy groups.
Yet, Israel is also desperate to avoid a region-wide war for one other reason. Israel knows that in the next major war it will be bombarded by many thousands of rockets from the northern, southern and eastern fronts, all at once. Despite Israel’s recent successes in nullifying this rocket threat, in the next significant war, there is every prospect Israel will be completely swamped by the sheer weight of rockets that will be fired at her.
Yet, despite each of these main Middle-East players not wanting war, the Middle East landscape has never looked more like war is coming. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the region has never looked more as if it is on the brink of an imminent all-out war in my lifetime.
In every direction one chooses, there are bubbling pressures, each of which is a potential trigger. Only recently, there was the unprecedented attacks on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. Iran, no doubt indirectly responsible for these attacks, is actively goading the United States into a limited military confrontation that could easily get out of hand and draw in all her regional allies and enemies, quickly spiraling out of control.
Equally, any one of a number of Israeli operations against Iranian hubs of power in Syria, and now in Iraq, could also provide the spark triggering an escalation into major, region-wide war.
Any confrontation or bloodletting in any of these areas will have a ripple effect upon the entire Middle East that could see it descending into chaos. One of the main, and most misunderstood, reasons why the Middle East is more volatile today than it has been in the past is because of the sheer number of proxy wars taking place there right now.
Take, for example, the current war in Yemen, between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. On the surface, it is a simple conflict between two relatively unimportant regional actors. However, this war is in fact a proxy war where Saudi – Iranian rivalry has come to a direct head.
It is on Yemeni battlefields that Saudi Arabia has finally chosen to confront Iran, and neither side at this point looks to be backing down. This war stopped being about merely the Houthis and the Yemen government long ago. Now it is morphing into no less than a confrontation between two competing ideologies, between Sunni and Shia Islam.
Syria is another fine example of this. On the surface, it would appear to be a brutal and bloody internal civil war, essentially between pro and anti-Assad forces. However, like Yemen, this war has become much more than that now. It is the epicenter of a confrontation between major world powers, and every one of them have deeply entrenched interests in Syria that prevent them from backing down or giving an inch.
Indeed, when one spends any serious time considering Syria, the only conclusion one can draw is that it would be truly remarkable if all-out war did not come from here. Interesting, and more than a little frightening, this is just the scenario that Isaiah describes in his Burden of Damascus prophecy. The house of Israel suddenly attacked, from Syria, provoking a reaction that can only be a nuclear retaliation, and thus Damascus, the oldest continually inhabited city on Earth, is reduced overnight into a heap of ruins. This could happen today or it could happen tomorrow.
This volatility in the Middle East is unlikely to change any time soon either because a number of huge power bloc confrontations upholds the current situation. It is these vast power blocs, similar to those that existed in pre-First World War Europe, that are fueling the chaos in the Middle East. Firstly, there is Israel, backed by America, against all her many regional enemies. Currently, these enemies consist of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria. This power struggle is manifesting itself in sporadic violence between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.
However, there are other competing power blocs in the Middle East too. Iran is actively engaged all over the region against Saudi Arabia, mainly through the proxy war both sides are fighting in Yemen, but also in Iraq and elsewhere.
Add to this mix Turkey and their ongoing, burgeoning offensive against the Kurds – and remember that Russia has very fixed commitments now in the Middle East too – and it is not hard to see how things could quickly spiral out of control.
Skeptics, though, would argue that the Middle East has always been this dysfunctional and volatile. However, this time is different. The dynamics of this present-day Middle East are different from any that have come before it, for three main reasons.
China, for the first time ever, is now very much present in the Middle East in a way it has never been before. Russia, that generation-old nemesis of NATO, is resurgent, and its influence over the region cannot be overestimated or overemphasized.
Yet, significant though these two pivotal factors are, by themselves they are no harbinger of war shortly ahead. What does create that harbinger is the relative decline of the United States, both in a general foreign policy sense, and in its “boots on the ground” influence in the region.
There is a sense in the Middle East that the old rules simply do not apply any longer. There is a belief that what might once have been out of bounds is now very much up for grabs, and that if these state and non-state actors don’t rush in and take what they perceive to be the new spoils, that opportunity may be lost to them forever. All of this reinforced by the obvious desire of the United States to disengage from all Middle Eastern military commitments.
In the past, there were known certainties in the Middle East that everyone counted on, all underpinned by one thing: the unyielding presence of the United States. Now that cannot be taken for granted, and the impact of this on the Middle East has been the removal of the restraint that once curtailed nations like Iran, and also transnational actors, from acting too rashly or foolishly.
Any future war between nation-states in the Middle East will easily spill across borders and quickly draw in a host of other nations. The paradox for America is that even despite Trump’s obvious efforts to disengage from the region, any conflict between any of these nations would see the United States inevitably drawn back in to the region, and a situation that Donald Trump has spent the last four years trying to escape from will repeat itself.
The Middle East, at present, seems to be spinning out of control. When war does finally come, as it will, it is also looking more and more likely that Israel will stand in this war all alone.