The continuous upheaval of ideological forces and reconfiguration of geo-strategic conditions across the Middle East took a dramatic turn Sunday-Monday, as reflected in three principal developments in and around the Arab world: The combined American-Arab Gulf states air strikes in Syria, the control of the Yemeni capital by Houthi rebels, and the meeting in New York between the Saudi Arabian and Iranian foreign ministers.
Each of these developments is dramatic in its own way, but together they capture two overarching developments that interact deeply and shape the region today. The first is that the domestic configuration of some Arab countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq is being defined (often for the first time ever) by a balance of forces that usually emerges from military clashes among sectarian and ethnic groups. The parallel phenomenon that is not so novel is that major regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia are intervening directly, militarily, financially and ideologically in these domestic contests to shape the identities and policies of Arab countries. They routinely do this with the active participation of their allies, like Hezbollah and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) smaller states.
The American-led air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria are not so noteworthy in themselves, because the United States has been bombing assorted Arab countries at will for the past several decades. That such foreign militarism is one of the factors that has fueled the continuous growth of salafist-takfiri extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS is a tangential matter for Americans or Arabs right now, when the real and immediate threat of ISIS must be beaten back and, if possible, eliminated altogether.
The really novel development this week is the combined air attacks against ISIS targets in northern Syria by several GCC states and the United States, which signals a historic shift in how the traditionally conservative and low-key Gulf states always used their power in the region. Direct air attacks against targets in nearby Arab countries indicate that all the constraints that had traditionally defined intra-Arab engagements are now removed. We pretty much have a free-for-all situation in the region, with traditionally clear ideological demarcation lines all totally blown to hell, whose gates the United States has said it is willing to reach to defeat the ISIS threat.
Americans, French, many Arabs, Kurds, Iranians, and others are all directly involved in military clashes in Iraq and Syria, with important supporting roles by Russia, Hezbollah and Turkey. The ongoing aerial attacks against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq will certainly weaken ISIS, and perhaps transform it from a movement that wants to create an “Islamic state” in the lands it controls, to a movement closer to Al-Qaeda in its tactics of attacking Arab and Western targets of its ire anywhere in the world. The gates of hell may be forming before our eyes.
Degrading or dispersing ISIS in Syria is likely to strengthen the Bashar Assad government in Damascus that the United States and most of the Arab states attacking ISIS have been trying to overthrow for the past three years. The fate of the Assads’ rule will directly interest Iran, which calculates its interests and assets around the region in denominations of allied movements, such as Hezbollah or the Houthis who now play a leading role in governing Yemen.
Chaos created by foreign military action in the Arab World in recent years has always provided openings for Russia and Iran to improve their strategic relations across the region, which may happen again now, at least in the short run. If Yemen stabilizes under a government in which the Houthis are dominant, and Iran already has close ties with the governments in Iraq and Syria, this makes it all the more urgent for Iran and Saudi Arabia to work together to forge a regional security arrangement that protects their vital interests while acknowledging their interests on the ground in various countries. This is why the Iranian-Saudi meeting in New York is so significant, because it is the first tangible public sign of both countries’ understanding of their urgent need to cooperate to reduce regional tensions and work out a new regional security system that they both guarantee.
“This is a new page in relations between the two countries,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said after the meeting in New York. “We hope this will have a positive impact on restoring peace and security in the region and the world….”
The Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal for his part noted, “We believe we must avoid the errors of the past to successfully confront the current crisis.”
Indeed, we now either walk through the gates of hell or act rationally and create a regional balance of power system in which Iran and Saudi Arabia anchor a wider set of relationships based on mutual collective self-interest rather than wasteful militarism.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global