The Mideast has been opened wide to political and military chaos beyond the capacity of any player to control. Intrigue on steroids is the name of the game.
No longer does superpower rivalry repress and redirect the behavior of the ambitious, the righteous, the angry in the old social pressure cooker that gave birth to human civilization. The two old superpowers are both back on their heels, knocked off balance by their own overweening smugness, and the new Chinese superpower of the future…well, that will be a long time coming. Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Kurds, Turks now all have, in the new Mideastern power vacuum, their chance, and, informed by 5,000 years of strategizing, they will seize the moment.
Saddam came too soon for his own good; with such room to maneuver as regional power-seekers have today, he might just have achieved his naive dream of a unified Arab empire. But today, when opportunity presents itself, no candidate for Emperor is visible. No nuclear hegemonist building a little European colony and dreaming of Zion, no Salafi terrorist out of the desert, no Turkish immigrant fresh from 16th century Central Asia, no Shi’i Cyrus, and certainly no pharaoh stands persuasively on the regional stage. Unless, after a millenium of state-less waiting in the shadows, a new Kurdish conqueror rides down from the mountains, it seems that the world can only look forward to a dizzy Mideast dance of small steps and missteps, traps laid and traps fallen into, plots and counterplots…a classic, incomprehensible, unpredictable, self-adapting system.
And this time, the system will be empowered by oil wealth, weapons of mass destruction, and the acceleration of modern communications: the self-promoting men of action will have no more intelligence than before but will be able to act vastly faster and hurt far more people far more quickly. And, of course, this time there are far more people. The temperature in the pressure cooker will be much higher.
The system will also be curiously well balanced on Turkish, Israeli, Saudi, and Iranian legs. This balance does not mean a lack of violence; it does not mean short-term stability. It just means no one will win; everyone will keep trying; the pot will continue to boil.
Ankara has the most noteworthy, historically uncharacteristic approach. While the world sneered at Erogan and Davutoglu for their “naive” policy of good neighborliness–stabbed in the back by a retreating superpower that could not figure out how to play the new, anything-goes Mideast game without the old simplifying force of superpower conflict to keep the lid on, and then further undercut by the collapse of Syria into civil war, the dashing Turkish duo suddenly pulled off a coup: peace with the Kurds! American ruling circles have still not made their peace with black Americans, even after 150 years, and it will take a miracle for Turks to accept their Kurds as equals overnight. Yet that must happen for the Erdogan-Ocalan peace initiative to work. Baghdad must also accept the arrival in Kurdistan of a new, battle-hardened army that is not likely to pour any cold water on Kurdish nationalist tendencies, and Iraqi Kurds will have to avoid letting their coup go to their heads. Nonetheless, success is conceivable. There is, after all, a great deal of money to be made by Kurds and Turks from jointly exporting oil to the world.
Which brings one to Tehran, which also would like to export oil and might, if things progress calmly, calculate that a peaceful Iraqi-Kurdish border plus an economic boom in Iraqi Kurdistan to keep everyone occupied, plus a set of shiny, new pipelines might just sound like a very good opportunity indeed: killing the two birds of destabilizing Kurdish nationalism and the American economic blockade with one stone of oil money. One can even imagine a stern Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general pointing out to his Iraqi Shi’i counterparts the wisdom of not upsetting this apple cart.
On the other hand, nationalism is a feeling not noted for eliciting calm, calculated reactions, and the Kurds in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkish Kurdistan now seem to be on a roll. Do they feel themselves to be more Iraqi/Turkish or more just plain Kurdish? Over the next few years, the answer is likely to become fairly apparent, and the flood of Syrian Kurdish refugees now pouring over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan will just make things all the more “interesting.”
Syria–of extreme strategic interest to Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia–not to mention al Qua’ida; already under occasional attack by Israel; coming apart at the seams; flooded with arms and armed groups–may or may not still be a state or any sort of easily identifiable entity, but it is certainly a dangerously dense network of linkages bringing all the major regional players eyeball to eyeball. Whatever simplicity and comprehensibility existed in the old Mideast, where someone named Assad always was in charge of the region’s physical center, that simplicity and comprehensibility has now evaporated like a mirage in the desert sun. With Tehran and Tel Aviv glaring at each other from on high and the Saudis wondering if Damascus might be the road to a Sunni regime in Baghdad, one can only wonder what opportunities the likes of al Qua’ida, Hezbollah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command might decide to take advantage of.
Tel Aviv, pulled between the lure of trying to crush Tehran and the lure of just whipping up war fever as a cover for continuing to digest Palestine, will find itself increasingly distracted. When it decides to keep tensions under control, an explosion in Lebanon may confuse the issue; when it decides to whip up war fever, some entirely separated Iranian-Turkish diplomatic or economic process may confuse the issue. Tel Aviv’s faith in the utility of its military superiority as the solution to all problems will be tested.
Riyadh too is playing a complicated multi-level game: acting the modern oil businessman while promoting dangerously medieval Salafi ideas and engaging in a classic power-politics struggle with Iran in whatever local battlefield (Bahrain, Iraq, Syria) happens to pop up, whether it is a useful battlefield or not. As with Israel, the unresolved contradictions in Saudi foreign policy will repeatedly cause it to stumble.
The Mideast is now a four-sided chess board, with Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all maneuvering against each other. Each side finds its strategic calculus complicated by the fact that several distinct games are being played simultaneously: what to do about the stateless and frustrated Kurds, what to do about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, what to do about the Iranian-Saudi contest, what to do about the Iranian-Israeli conflict, and the big question of who, if anyone, might be able to emerge as the “winner.” But there’s more: the four states cannot, of course, play the game without the endless interference of an endless array of little players, and to the (rising) degree that the big players balance each other off and thus negate each other’s power, the little players gain opportunities for suddenly seizing control of the multiplying political tipping points.