Millennium Post

Redrawing the chessboard

New alignments in the Middle East have facilitated the emergence of new key players

Redrawing the chessboard

The fallout from the September attack on Saudi Arabia's Aramco oil facilities is continuing to reverberate throughout the Middle East, sidelining old enmities and re-drawing traditional alliances. While Turkey's recent invasion of northern Syria is grabbing headlines, the bigger story may be that major regional players are contemplating some historic re-alignments.

After years of bitter rivalry, the Saudis and the Iranians are considering how they can dial down their mutual animosity. The formerly powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Persian Gulf monarchs is atomising because Saudi Arabia is losing its grip and with it the benefits of US domination in the region.

Some of these developments are long-standing, pre-dating the cruise missile and drone assault that knocked out 50 per cent of Saudi Arabia's oil production. But the double shock–Turkey's lunge into Syria and the September missile attack–is accelerating these changes.

Pakistani PM Imran Khan recently flew to Iran and then on to Saudi Arabia to lobby for détente between Tehran and Riyadh and to head off any possibility of hostilities between the two countries. "What should never happen is a war," Khan said, "because this will not just affect the whole region…this will cause poverty in the world. Oil prices will go up."

The Saudi intervention in Yemen's civil war was supposed to last three months but it has dragged on for over four years. UAE was to supply the ground troops and the Saudis the airpower. But the Saudi-UAE alliance has made little progress against the battle-hardened Houthis, who have been strengthened by defections from the regular Yemeni army.

Air wars without supporting ground troops are almost always a failure and they are very expensive. The Saudi treasury is not bottomless.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the Saudi economy from its over-reliance on petroleum but he needs outside money to do that and he is not getting it. The Yemen War–which, according to the United Nations is the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet–and the Prince's involvement with the murder and the dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has spooked many investors.

Without outside investment, the Saudis have to use their oil revenues but the price per barrel is below what the Kingdom needs to fulfil its budget goals and world demand is falling off. The Chinese economy is slowing and European growth is sluggish. There is a whiff of recession in the air and that's bad news for oil producers.

Riyadh is also losing allies. UAE is negotiating with the Houthis and withdrawing their troops, in part because Abu Dhabi has different goals in Yemen than Saudi Arabia and because in any dustup with Iran, the UAE would be ground zero. U.S. generals are fond of calling the UAE "little Sparta" because of its well-trained army but the operational word is "little". The Emirates' army can muster 20,000 troops, Iran can field more than 800,000 soldiers.

Saudi Arabia's goals in Yemen boil down to supporting the government-in-exile of President Rabho Mansour Hadi, control its southern border and challenge Iran's support of the Houthis. The UAE, on the other hand, is less concerned with the Houthis but quite focused on backing the anti-Hadi Southern Transitional Council, which is trying to re-create south Yemen as a separate country. North and south Yemen were merged in 1990, largely as a result of Saudi pressure and it has never been a comfortable marriage.

Riyadh has also lost its grip on the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar continue to trade with Iran in spite of efforts by the Saudis to isolate Tehran. The UAE and Saudi Arabia recently hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pressed for the 22-member Arab League to re-admit Syria. GCC member Bahrain has already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus. Putin is pushing for a multilateral security umbrella for the Middle East, which includes China.

The Arab League–with the exception of Qatar–denounced the Turkish invasion and called for a withdrawal of Ankara's troops. Qatar is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for pursuing an independent foreign policy and backing a different horse in the Libyan civil war. Turkey is Qatar's main ally.

Russia's 10-point agreement with Turkey on Syria has generally gone down well with Arab League members, largely because the Turks agreed to respect Damascus's sovereignty and eventually, withdraw all troops. Of course, "eventually" is a shifty word, especially because Turkey's goals are hardly clear.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to drive the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border and move millions of Syrian refugees into a strip of land some 19 miles deep and 275 miles wide. The Kurds may move out but the Russian and Syrian military–filling in the vacuum left by President Trump's withdrawal of American forces–have blocked the Turks from holding more than the border and one deep enclave.

Erdoğan's invasion is popular at home–nationalism plays well with the Turkish population and most Turks are unhappy with the Syrian refugees–but for how long? The Turkish economy is in trouble and invasions cost a lot of money. Ankara is using proxies for much of the fighting but without lots of Turkish support, those proxies are no match for the Kurds, let alone the Syrian and Russian militaries.

That would mean Turkish airpower is restrained by the threat of Syrian anti-aircraft and Russian fighters, not to mention the fact that the Americans still control the airspace. The Russians have deployed their latest fifth-generation stealth fighter, the SU-57 and a number of MiG-29s and SU-27s, not planes the Turks would wish to tangle with. The Russians also have their new mobile S-400 anti-aircraft system and the Syrians have the older but still effective, S-300s.

The Middle East that is emerging from the current crisis may be very different than the one that existed before those cruise missiles and drones tipped over the chessboard. The Yemen War might finally end. Iran may, at least partly, break out of the political and economic blockade that Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Israel have imposed on it. Syria's civil war will recede. And the Americans, who have dominated the Middle East since 1945, will become simply one of several international players in the region, along with China, Russia, India, and the European Union.

Courtesy: People's World. Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus. Views expressed are strictly personal

Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan

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