The year of 2018 will be historically remembered as the one which confirmed – with extreme might – the reality of a thesis that the Near and Middle East are the core of world geopolitics – regardless of whatever currently is going on in Europe, South Asia or the Far East.
All things occurring in the broadly understood Middle East will sooner or later result in political or economic repercussions, even in the most distant parts of the world. It so happens not only because of the “curse of the black gold”, which means dependence of contemporary civilization on crude oil and natural gas, most of which still come from that region. Quite crucial here are – existing from time immemorial – ethnic, political and religious conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian one or the rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam, or Muslims and Christians, or Arabian-Persian and Arabian-Turkish disagreements. On top of that, there are such phenomena as Islamic extremism and terrorism, chronic political and economic instability, mass migration and proliferation of armament technology.
From among all Middle East countries, Saudi Arabia is of special significance – it is the greatest and richest of all in the region, and for several decades has unquestionably been a regional power and a leader of the Arabian world. Just as the situation in the Middle East affects global geopolitics, the situation in Saudi Arabia directly affects the entire region.
The world froze in terror and disbelief, when in mid October 2018 the reports of a journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in Saudi consulate in Istanbul were confirmed. This living in the West Saudi Arabian columnist had officially declared his opposition towards the patriarchal social and political system of Saudi Arabia, and ardently criticized Saudi authorities, including the present ruler – King Salman. According to a totally feudal and theocratic philosophy of Al Saud monarchy’s ruling, criticizing the ruler of Riyadh aspiring to the role of the greatest Sunni Islam’s moral and religious authority (the King also bears the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, i.e. Mecca and Medina), is the gravest possible crime. The way “justice” was administered clearly showed to the world the Kingdom’s true face, and exposed the country to international ostracism. What is worse, once again the reputation of Riyadh, already quite weak, as well as its international position has been seriously impaired. Many experts are convinced that Saudi Arabia committed symbolic geopolitical suicide.
The murder of Khashoggi converges and accentuates many negative social, political and civilization processes eating today’s Saudi Arabia like a slowly growing cancer, which makes this country slowly reduce its significance in the region down to a secondary player. Decades of the system based on nepotism, corruption and favoritism of expanded clannish, tribal and ancestral network, topped with demoralization stemming from unimaginable wealth provided by petrodollars – ultimately bore poisonous fruits. The degeneration of Saudi Arabia’s state structures and moral decay of political elites – entirely descended from an extensive (over 20,000 members!) royal family and people directly related to it – long silenced and concealed, must have finally seen the light of day.
Having all possible signs of a tribal vendetta, the murder of Khashoggi has become this one pebble that started the avalanche, which, on top of that, is falling down in the least predictable directions. The repercussions have already been noticeable not only in Saudi Arabia itself, but also in entire region, and even in the most distant part of the world. This is just the beginning. It is being so because the quite clumsy operation of silencing Khashoggi was carried out in the worst possible moment. The worsening of the situation in Saudi Arabia has enforced the monarchy’s image crisis, with which it had been struggling at least since 2015 when King Salman first sat on the throne in Riyadh. The aged and ailing monarch from the beginning of his rule counts on the subsequent heirs to the throne, out of whom none has turned out competent enough so far – neither Muhammad bin Nayef (deposed for alleged disloyalty), nor Mohammed bin Salman.
The latter one – most probably personally responsible for the operation of removing Khashoggi – has for a long time been accused of bringing Saudi Arabia to the greatest crisis in history. It turns out that the analysts of German intelligence were right when already in 2015 (two years before the Prince was appointed the heir to the House of Saud’s throne) they defined his way of ruling as a source of most Saudi Arabia’s international problems.
With the weakening of Saudi Arabia’s position, to rubble is being reduced all regional geopolitical structure, created in pains for almost four decades by Riyadh, with a significant help from the United States and other western allies. The West for years perceived this country as the backbone of regional stability, a strategic counterbalance to Shia Iran and Sunni extremist movements, but also to all revolts and turmoil violating the regional status quo. For decades Saudi Arabia had been truly famous for its balanced and predictable, although at the same time decisive and effective, foreign policy. Since the World War I, in the region of the Persian Gulf (1991) Riyadh was to play the role of a regional gendarme – in the interest of the United States and the West. This strategic axiom however became history in 2015.
The politics of the House of Saud, the Riyadh’s quarrel with Oman and its consequent restrictions towards Qatar, all brought the collapse of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), not so long ago having been an effective tool for activity within the Persian Gulf subregion. Saudi Arabia and its protégées have in the recent years suffered geopolitical failures in many places of the region. Such is the case, for example, in Iraq where Sunni political and paramilitary formations, supported by the House of Saud, were pushed into shade by pro-Iranian central government, which made this country almost Tehran’s protectorate. Such is also the case in Syria, where Riyadh over three years ago withdrew from active support of the armed Sunni rebellion against the government, ceding this task to their contemporary allies in the GCC. This definitely made it easy for Bashar al-Assad to gain the advantage in the ongoing civil war, and for the Russian supporting Assad – regaining influences in Levant. In Lebanon, too, Saudi influences are dwindling with every year, which is the result of, among others, enforcing the position of Shia Hezbollah and a growing Iranian activity. Riyadh tried to stop this course of events, reaching for original methods. In November 2017, Riyadh put Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who was visiting the Kingdom, under a two-week house arrest to punish him for making too many political concessions towards the Shia. The House of Saud is also rapidly yielding to Turkey and Iran their influence on Palestinian case, which has so far been one of the main activity areas of Riyadh and GCC states.
The nail in the coffin of Saudi politics (and indirectly also to the American one) in the Middle East was a politically and military unsuccessful intervention in Yemen. The campaign, as assumed by Saudi planners, was to be a quick and witty operation showcasing the Kingdom’s military power, but in fact for four years has been a strategic nightmare, draining the resources and forces of Riyadh (the cost of war so far has been estimated at over 200 billion dollars, which makes it about 200 million dollars a day). Moreover, the way the war had been conducted – far from the standards of a civilized world – exposed Saudi Arabia to a wave of international criticism, which somehow rebounded to the USA, too. All of the above invites traditional regional Riyadh’s rivals – Turkey returning to its old Ottoman roots and Shia Iran – to take action.
Turkey, governed by the Justice and Development Party led by a charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for several years has systematically been drifting off the course set almost a hundred years ago by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The aim seems to be regaining the place in the group of regional superpowers, and returning to the splendor of the Ottoman Empire and the time when Turkey had real influence on international situation, extending far beyond the Middle East. Erdoğan, in order to implement those plans, is not afraid of any radical changes in foreign policy – such as significant cooling the relations with Europe and USA, abandoning good relations with Israel and rapprochement to, hitherto, traditional rivals of Turkey: Russia and Iran. Invariably, however, rivalry with the Arab, particularly the House of Saud’s Kingdom, remains part of Ankara’s strategy. Therefore, the choice of Istanbul as a place of Khashoggi execution was for Ankara administration the best of gifts.
The wild geopolitical ambitions of Ankara pushed it to directly military engage in neighboring Syria. This had not been possible as long as the “old” army and its officers, who guarded the republic’s secularity, existed. Unsuccessful coup d’état of July 2016 gave the Erdoğan administration a chance to purge the armed forces, particularly in the officer corps, which ultimately removed the last formal obstacle on the way to implement the strategy of building “a new Turkey”.
Intervention in Syria was officially launched to support its “democratic” opposition, but in fact – against Syrian Kurds, who had been more and more explicitly calling for autonomy. The course of this operation, both in political and military aspect, has been far from expected. What is worse, Ankara’s international policy within the past three years has made that this country enter into a serious conflict with the West. It is not a situation of comfort, considering Turkey’s membership in NATO. Also, on Turkey’s territory, there are still three billion immigrants from Syria, most of whom want to get to Europe as soon as possible.
Riyadh’ weakness is being abused by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), the main beneficiary of turbulent geopolitical changes of recent years in the Middle East. Tehran has reported the greatest in history successes in regional policy. They managed to finally outspread their ideological and political control over all countries of the Shia Crescent, i.e. the area extending from Lebanon and Syria through Iraq to Iran, and even further to the East, up to Shia regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, Iran also has strong influences in Yemen (Houthi Movement), in Gaza Strip territory (Palestinian Hamas Movement) and popularity on Shia streets of Bahrain cities and eastern Saudi Arabia. All of these occurs at the very moment when Iran is being perceived by the Western public opinion as a heroic protector of Iraq against the Islamic State during 2014-2015.
Legacy of Khomeini
Warming-up Iran’s image greatly affected the success of the negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, concluded in 2015, which was to consequently abolish sanctions and open the Iranian economy to the world. No wonder that President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has recently said that never in its history had the Islamic Republic of Iran had direct political influence on as many as four Arab capital cities in the region – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaˈa. This aim, set in 1979 by the IRI’s founding father, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has been achieved only now.
Such situation is at present particularly disadvantageous to weakened Riyadh, but most of all – to Washington. President Donald Trump has totally abolished his predecessor’s, Barack Obama, Middle Eastern policy, which proclaimed the idea of reset towards Iran and the world of Islam, supported “democratic” revolts in the region, and assumed favoring Palestinians at the cost of strategic security interests of Israel. The present US administration had returned to previous axioms of US policy towards this region, with the priority to support their allies – particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia – regardless of circumstances. However, recent events suggest that Riyadh has abused the US trust, and Washington’s patience is running out.
The Trump administration was forced to take wide-scale actions towards this region, which was very neatly defined by an anonymous US envoy as a “diplomatic clean-up of Saudi Arabia’s mess”. Last year, there were some steps taken to reverse disadvantageous political tendencies in Iraq, vastly being the result of Barack Obama’s ill-considered decision to withdraw all US forces from this country. The USA ultimately managed – with the support of its regional allies – to prevent the overwhelming victory of pro-Iranian forces in Iraqi parliamentary elections in May 2018.
At the same time, in neighboring Syria, the US military presence was increased within the frames of direct support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, a formation associating local Kurds and Arabs. Soldiers operating east to Euphrates not only liquidate the still remaining there enclaves of the so-called Islamic States, but also with their very presence effectively put a stop to the Turkish, Russian and Iranian plans of occupation of this part of the country. In order to make the final realization of Tehran plans difficult, the USA also aim at cutting off the land communication routes between Iran and Lebanon, which cross the south-eastern Syria.
Another important step taken by the Trump administration were the termination of the JCPOA agreement in May 2018 and the announcement to renew political, economic and financial sanctions on Iran as well as on all countries and businesses cooperating with Iran, including the Western ones. This has been rather radical, considering the fact that the agreement signatories (i.e. the remaining permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) will not follow Washington in this case. The reason for US decision were fears that non-inclusion of the verification and control mechanisms over the extended Iranian missile program in the JCPOA makes the entire agreement at least incomplete, if not to say – ineffective. Since there are well-founded suspicions that for three decades Tehran has been developing and improving ballistic missiles mainly with the aim to use them as nuclear warhead carriers.
The strategic situation around Syria and in Levant remains at a standstill, Washington so far has not planned any long-term cohesive strategy for this region, and it rather reacts ad hoc to any activity of its rivals. They, in turn, seem to play out a precisely written scenario, according to which the United States will ultimately fall into a strategic trap, this time in Syria. Moscow particularly seems to be willing to see the United States once again entangled in a prolonged, asymmetrical conflict which would keep all the attention away from other regions, such as Central Asia, Trans-Caucasia, Central-Eastern Europe, or the Arctic.
This last region is becoming the source of the Kremlin’s anxiety and fears. The ongoing climate changes make the Arctic sea ice cover has been reducing very quickly, which makes the Arctic waters accessible for maritime communication – and for warships of potential enemies. Therefore, Russia – for the first time since ages – cannot feel truly safe in the Arctic North.
Today Moscow with great anxiety follows the increasing activity of the West (including NATO) in subarctic regions. One can expect that in the near future the Russians will do everything to point strategic attention of the USA and their allies towards other territories of Eurasia. Whether this is going to be the escalation of the war in Ukraine, reactivation of the conflicts in Transnistria or Georgia, or perhaps “testing” the North-Atlantic Alliance in the Baltic States or the Suwałki Gap (in Polish: “przesmyk suwalski”), remains unknown. A very convenient place to engage the attention of the USA and their allies is also Afghanistan. The successes systematically gained in recent years by the Taliban, along with the increasing local-province activity of the Islamic State and the weakening position of pro-Western government in Kabul make Washington have problems in this region. The decision to cease the ISAF operation in 2014 and related limitations of international forces’ presence in the Hindu Kush area appeared to have been too rash. Moreover, the more and more powerful Afghan Taliban is still closely related to Al-Qaeda, and just as it was before 2001, it is allowed to enter the Taliban-controlled territory of Afghanistan. As a result, both the complicated geopolitical situation in the Middle Eastern region and the collapsing situation of security in Afghanistan reduce the effectiveness of the war with Islamic extremism and its main organizational structures: the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. The Islamic State, although its caliphate in Syria and Iraq was broken up, still has its cells scattered almost all around the world. The activity of many IS cells has systematically been extending, which pushes away in time the perspective of any final defeat of this organization. Similarly Al-Qaeda, after years of staying in the shadow of caliphate, begins to return to its old form and activity range, particularly in the Afghan-Pakistani region, in Yemen, or North and East Africa.
The focus of Washington attention on the Middle East is also a geopolitical dream of Beijing. China, as the only of contemporary global power states interested in the situation in the Middle East, does not keep its armed forces there. This does not mean China is not following the news in this part of the world, especially that the growing economy of the Middle Kingdom needs greater deliveries of crude oil, which is ensured mostly by Saudi Arabia.
China very well knows that forcing the United States – China’s main strategic rival in the supraregional aspect and the greatest potential military adversary in Western Pacific – to intensify the engagement in the Middle East almost automatically means that its activity in the Western Asia will be diminished. This being in spite of a new strategy, known as a “pivot to Asia”, officially declared by Washington several years ago. In the recent months, Beijing has taken steps to facilitate the USA focusing on “cleaning-up” in the Middle East. Essentially, it is about persuading North Korean regime to start a political dialogue with the USA. The process of a slow warming-up of the Washington-Pyongyang relations perfectly reflects the present Chinese strategy. Just as – quite surprising for many observers – sudden detente between China and Japan, and smoothing Chinese rhetoric on the East China Sea disputed territories.
Want Peace, Get Ready For War
First and foremost, a geopolitical situation in Europe and the relations between the Euro-Atlantic states should be however particularly disturbing to the Trump administration. In majority of current problems and areas of contemporary international relations, the United States of America is of different standpoint than their closest allies of Western Europe. In many cases, such as Palestinian case and relations with Israel, the Syrian issue or the problem regarding the future situation with Iran and US-imposed sanctions on that country – the disparity of interests, opinions and policies between the United States and Europe seems to be slowly ruling out the possibility of any effective cooperation. A list of cases, where such disparity can be found in the American-European relations, is still getting longer.
In this context, the above-mentioned cooling of American-Turkish relations is worth recalling. Such situation itself is already alarming, as it jeopardizes the effective functioning of Trans-Atlantic community. The problem becomes even more serious, when one takes into account an intentional fueling of the existing disputes within this community – and creating the new ones – by these international players who consider the widely understood West as a rival or even a deadly enemy. Such countries as Russia, China or Iran would gladly see the weakening of Euro-Atlantic community, particularly NATO. For several years now, the attempts of driving a wedge between – until recently relatively harmonious – the US-European relations could have been observed.
All of these cause fears about the effectiveness of transatlantic community – most of all of NATO – mainly at the political level, in the situation of trial, that is of an authentic armed conflict (classic or hybrid) where one of Alliance members is engaged and all Washington Treaty procedures (including Art 4 and 5) will have to be launched. Will the internally divided transatlantic community be able to meet the challenge of swift decision-making and firmness, but also (or perhaps especially) the challenge of unanimity? Would, for example, Turkey, remaining in the state of strife and dissension – traditionally with Greece, but also with the USA – not be retarding some indispensable political and military decisions of NATO in the situation of crisis in Eastern Europe with Russia – Turkey’s new ally in the Near and Middle East? Would the member states of the old European Union, linked to Russia via multiple lucrative economic interests, be prone to sacrifice their businesses to “die for Warsaw” (or Riga, or Tallinn, or Vilnius)?
These questions remain unanswered, and we should only hope that there will never come a time when we are forced to actually ask them. What conclusions can be drawn for Poland and the perspective of its security in the present geopolitical situation in Eurasia? First, we should enforce the North-Atlantic Alliance. Second, as for the security and defense policy, we should bear in mind an old Roman maxim: “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“Want peace, get ready for war”). Equally important becomes the enforcement of multilateral cooperation in Central-Eastern and Southern Europe (i.a. within the frames of the Visegràd Group and the Intermarium project). These activities should not be considered as an alternative to NATO, but rather as its enforcement – these initiatives build the atmosphere of regional solidarity, which is necessary in case the international situation in our part of the world will become strained. Close military and strategic relationship with the USA is of fundamental significance, and this means rotational presence of US Army troops on the territory of Poland and joint exercises, building here a part of the US air missile defense system, and in the long term – permanent dislocation of US forces. Regardless of the above, it is however necessary to also develop and enforce our own defense capability.
At the end of the second decade of the 20th century, world geopolitics has clearly entered a hairpin bend. There is an increasing number of international disputes and crises, a growing tension in many regions and relationships between different countries. Time will show whether international community will survive the situation without any serious upheavals, or whether there will be a turning point in the form of another large-scale conflict in some part of the globe. However the situation will grow, we have to be ready.
Translated by Anita Kwaterowska
autor zdjęć: Petros Giannakouris / AP Foto / East News